Pro-Mugabe bishop locks out faithful

Anglicans forced to pray in the street as Zimbabwe cleric refuses to accept sacking

Thousands of Zimbabwean Anglicans are being locked out of churches and cathedrals, and forced to hold services in the street, amid a worsening row between two Church factions that mirrors the country's political crisis.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have condemned Zimbabwean authorities for siding with Nolbert Kunonga, the dismissed former bishop of Harare. Archbishops Rowan Williams and John Sentamu said the "unprovoked intimidation of worshippers" reflected the ongoing oppression of those perceived to be sympathetic to the opposition.

Mr Kunonga, who claims to be a fervent supporter of President Robert Mugabe, was sacked in February 2008 by his superiors in the Church of the Province of Central Africa. He claimed to be unconvinced by the province's stand against Anglican moves to ordain homosexuals.

But critics of Mr Kunonga say he is simply power-hungry and is using the homosexuality issue as an excuse to ingratiate himself with President Mugabe, even though Mr Mugabe is a Catholic. Mr Kunonga has claimed his opponents are supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change, which they deny.

The scene on a recent Sunday on the corner of Baker Avenue and Second Street, where the stone cathedral of St Mary's and All Saints has stolidly stood since 1934, is being replicated at churches all over the country. Congregants, two drummers and members of the choir arrived in dribs and drabs and gathered around the heavy oak doors, waiting for someone to turn up with the key.

"We never know, from one Sunday to the next, whether we are going to gain access,'' said Father Farai Mutamiri. Members of the congregation recalled being tear-gassed last March by riot police loyal to Mr Kunonga who burst into the cathedral during the service. "That is when we took the issue to court,'' said the Rev Phineas Fundira. Mr Kunonga's appointed replacement as head of the diocese of Harare, Bishop Chad Gandiya, has been fighting court battles ever since. "We increasingly don't know what to do. We have some Anglicans in the Zanu-PF politburo so we are going to turn to them for support."

The locked-out Anglicans believe Mr Kunonga's position is hardening and see no let-up in the support he is receiving from elements of the police.

At St Mary's the congregation finally decided to hold their service on a lawn next to the cathedral car park. Fr Mutamiri and the Rev Fundira changed into their vestments, set an altar on a small table and produced wafers from a picnic basket. Fr Mutamiri said the congregation had remained united and that most regulars supported Bishop Gandiya. "We are holding house services, and sticking together."

But he did not call for further intervention from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. "We are accused of being pro-homosexual and pro-MDC, which we are not. We are just a peace-loving congregation who wish to be able to carry on worshipping together.

"We would like the Church of the Province of Central Africa to solve this issue, which is centred on their former employee. But if the Archbishop of Canterbury gets involved that could strengthen the perception that our agenda is for regime-change, which it is not," said Fr Mutamiri.