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Our vital contribution in Zimbabwe - Guardian article

Monday 8th February 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, wrote a joint comment in the Guardian newspaper on the Church in Zimbabwe.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Morgan Tsvangirai, former opposition leader, was one of those present to represent Zimbabwe – a reminder that the fragile power-sharing arrangement brokered just a year ago still survives. But it would be a brave person who took this as a sign that Zimbabwe was moving steadily towards anything like political normality or full economic recovery. Some urgent humanitarian matters have been addressed, especially in relation to the freedom of NGOs to deliver essential services. But education remains in chaos, and disease – including HIV rates and measles infection – is on the rise; last year's cholera epidemic is over, but this year's rains will bring new risks. The number of doctors in the country is tiny, with all routine health services seriously depleted.

One sign of dysfunctionality and oppression is the continuing level of harassment of Anglican Christians in Harare and elsewhere. Some congregations were locked out of their churches at Christmas; church members are threatened, attacked and beaten. The election of several new bishops with a clear and courageous commitment to the welfare of their people is provoking the disgraced and ousted former church leadership to continue the tactics of violent intimidation that led to their alienation from the wider church and eventual removal. That violence is actively supported by the police, despite court judgments in favour of the new leadership. In one diocese, the former bishop and his small group of associates still have a stranglehold on property, so that no funds are available to pay stipends for the legitimate clergy.

But in the middle of all this – with legal costs threatening to cripple their work – Anglicans in Zimbabwe have become vital contributors to sustaining and rebuilding the social fabric. A year ago, the archbishops of Canterbury and York launched their appeal for Zimbabwe. It has so far raised nearly half a million pounds from the Church of England. This money, administered through 'USPG: Anglicans in World Mission' has enabled the Anglican church in Zimbabwe to increase its already extensive development work – HIV care, rural clinics, training in sustainable farming practices, feeding programmes delivered through schools, often in close partnership with local government and NGOs. The Nets for Life programme, funded by the Episcopal church in America, is widespread in the country. No less importantly, various dioceses sponsor healing and reconciliation initiatives, with drama and music workshops for young people in both rural and urban settings.

The church's record in Zimbabwe has been uneven, especially in the shameful period of uncritical support for Mugabe from leaders like the former bishop of Harare. But things have changed. Last year, the churches jointly offered a framework for confronting and dealing with the buried traumas of many decades in a country that has seen more than its share of violence and corruption. And in October 2009, the Roman Catholic bishops' conference of Zimbabwe published a pastoral letter on national healing which gave an impressively comprehensive analysis of the country's ills and spelled out what the churches could provide. Anglican churches in particular have been at the forefront of establishing counselling centres where people can speak about their sufferings, and education programmes that open new possibilities.

Unless government adopts something like this framework, Zimbabwe is doomed to another round of trauma and destitution. There are still those who say – as some of the discussion about aid for Haiti has shown – that churches are not the best vehicle for delivering aid, because they have an "agenda" to advance. This is nonsense – and dangerously unrealistic nonsense. In societies where the main civil society networks are closely bound to the life of the churches, it is self-defeatingly foolish to bypass their systems. The "agenda" of the churches in contexts like this is simply the restoration of human dignity and stability in a deeply damaged society. No one else is there to do it.

A year on from the launch of the archbishops' appeal and a year on from the power-sharing agreement, Zimbabwe still suffers acutely. We in the UK need to be clear about the urgency of supporting those working for basic human dignities and struggling to build social capital for the future through their work in counselling and reconciliation.

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