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Williams's 'healing' Zimbabwe trip starts with anti-gay protests

The Archbishop of Canterbury began his "healing" visit to Zimbabwe yesterday by delivering a sermon as part of a tour designed to help close a rift within the Anglican Church.

Dr Rowan Williams addressed an estimated 15,000 people at an open-air Sunday service at the National Sports Stadium in the capital, Harare, before a possible meeting he has requested today with President Robert Mugabe.

The service was held in the stadium after Harare's Anglican cathedral was taken over by the rebel bishop, Nolbert Kunonga. Kunonga, who supports Mr Mugabe, is accused of intimidating and evicting from their churches mainstream Anglican congregations.

Urging people to turn away from violence, the archbishop said: "Listen. Not only to the voice of those who suffer but to the voice of God himself, grieving over the way we ruin his creation, the voice of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, longing for his people to open their hearts to justice and peace and mercy."

Dr Williams hopes to meet with Mr Mugabe to discuss the persecution of Anglicans, although the president had not confirmed the appointment.

Mr Kunonga was excommunicated in 2007 for inciting violence in sermons supporting Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, although he says he left the church because of its position on gay rights. Since then, with the backing of police armed with tear gas and batons, he has seized control of up to 40 per cent of the country's churches, and other assets including schools, orphanages and bank accounts.

Mr Kunonga had organised protests at the cathedral. He called Williams's visit a "crusade for gays", adding: "This is a demonstration against homosexuality. Rowan Williams erred by accepting homosexuality and that has broken up the church all over." Mr Kunonga has also accused Dr Williams of being "a British diplomat representing neo-colonial interests".

Some have expressed concerns that Dr Williams' trip could increase the persecution, or otherwise give political capital to Mr Mugabe, who has described gays and lesbians as "worse than pigs and dogs".

A spokesman for Mr Mugabe, George Charamba, told Zimbabwe's state-run Sunday Mail newspaper that if the leaders met, the 87-year-old president would challenge Williams about homosexuality, and sanctions against Zimbabwe.

"Fundamentally, he would want to know why the church of the British state, the Anglican Church, has remained so loudly silent while the people of Zimbabwe, and these people include Anglicans, are suffering from the illegal sanctions," Charamba said.

"The second issue that the president wants this man of God to clarify is why his Anglican Church thinks homosexuality is good for us and why it should be prescribed for us.

"He thinks the Archbishop will be polite enough to point to him that portion of the Great Book (that) sanctions homosexuality and sanctions sanctions."

Anglican worshippers said they had been inspired by the speech by Dr Williams.

"I am sure from this, I have gathered courage. I hope it does not (turn to) vapour soon," said Angela Marava, who arrived early in the morning to be sure she found a seat.

Williams response yesterday to Kunonga's seizure of the Anglican churches properties was to say buildings were not important as long as the Christians remained faithful.