The head of the worldwide Anglican Church met Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to hand him a dossier of abuses against the church and its priests in Zimbabwe and demand an end to a campaign of persecution.
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, was welcomed to Harare by thousands of Anglicans on Sunday and delivered a hard-hitting sermon criticising seizures of Church property and harassment of its followers by members of a breakaway church.
Bishop Nolbert Kunonga, a Mugabe supporter excommunicated by the Church, has secured a court ruling giving his breakaway faction custody of the Church’s assets in Zimbabwe, Reuters reports.
He has used the court ruling to take over church hospitals, orphanages and schools and ejected bishops and officials from church buildings, forcing members of the 2-million strong church to pray in private schools and halls.
“We have asked, in the clearest possible terms, that the president use his powers as head of state to put an end to all unacceptable and illegal behaviour,” Williams told journalists at a Harare hotel after a meeting with Mugabe that lasted more than 90 minutes.
The split has often become violent. Police have used teargas to forcibly shut out Anglican members from church buildings.
A majority of members remain loyal to the worldwide church, but no precise figures are available.
Analysts say the takeover of the Anglican Church reflects a broader bid by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party to exert political control over churches, in a country where more than 80 percent of the 13 million population are Christians.
Many Anglican followers said on Sunday they had been cheered by Williams’ visit, but that violence, intimidation and disruption of their worship were unlikely to end soon.
Kunonga says he formed the breakaway faction to rid the church of homosexuality.
But Williams, spiritual leader of 80 million Anglicans worldwide, said Kunonga’s allegations were a distraction from the real problems that caused the split.
He said Mugabe appeared not to have been aware of the scale of the intimidation documented in the dossier.
“He expressed his concerns at the damage the division was doing to communities generally in Zimbabwe and he is willing to speak to Dr Kunonga to raise the concerns that we had flagged up this afternoon,” Williams added.
Mugabe, 87, did not speak to journalists.
Many in his party view the Anglican Church as an outdated legacy of British colonial rule.
Mugabe accuses Britain of seeking to unseat him over his seizure of white-owned commercial farms, and says London has led a Western campaign to impose sanctions on him and his inner circle as punishment for the seizures.
Williams said Mugabe had raised the issue of Western sanctions during Monday’s meeting, but Williams added that he was not convinced the measures had hurt ordinary Zimbabweans.
“It was a very candid meeting — disagreements expressed clearly but, I think, in a peaceful manner,” Williams said.