With UN secretary general Kofi Annan due to visit Zimbabwe this week to assess the impact of President Robert Mugabe's bulldozing of the property of the urban poor, which has caused international outrage, church agencies inside the country are planning a widespread relief programme.
Members of the international ecumenical alliance ACT (Action of Churches Together) in Zimbabwe say they are in a unique position to help because, through the churches on the ground, they are able to provide humanitarian assistance in areas where international NGOs and the United Nations do not have access.
ACT partners plan to meet immediate needs of shelter in the form of tents and blankets (June and July are the coldest months of the year in Zimbabwe), as well as providing cooking utensils, jerry cans, soap, a basic dry food ration and targeted ëwet' or special foods for vulnerable groups - including children.
The Zimbabwe Christian Council is backing these initiatives. Christian Care will be the lead implementing agency and Christian Aid, Zimbabwe, the main contact and co-ordination body. An international ACT appeal is planned for 5 July 2005.
The government's Operation Murambatsvina (ëRestore Order / Clean Up') has been running since 23 May. Those targeted include street children, homeless people, traders, unregistered and informal businesses and allegedly illegal housing structures across the country.
ACT sources say that the informal economic sector has been devastated. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people have been destroyed at a time when unemployment is estimated at 70%. 50,000 homes have been removed. Conservative estimates put the number of displaced individuals at 250,000. Many have been traumatised by events, particularly children, increasing the general feeling of fear and helplessness.
ACT International is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies. It was founded by the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation and works with major Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox agencies.
Church organizations and opposition leaders in Zimbabwe are continuing to protest against the demolitions, saying that the campaign is retribution towardst the urban population for supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) during the recent election.
"At such a time of widespread hunger and massive social deprivation the launching of the police operation is in our view particularly insensitive and inappropriate," the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and Christians Together for Justice and Peace said in a recent statement.
The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference has urged President Robert Mugabe's government to tackle issues of poverty and high-level corruption by senior government officials in the country, rather than making citizens poorer and homeless.
"We warn the perpetrators of this crime that history will hold you accountable," a spokesperson for the Bishop's Conference declared.
Meanwhile Zimbabwe's outspoken Roman Catholic Archbishop, Pius Ncube, has called for Mugabe's arrest and prosecution. Speaking at the Vatican on Friday, Archbishop Ncube alleged that Zimbabwe's government planned to drive disaffected urban voters back to the famine-hit countryside for political re-education, as the Pol Pot regime did in Cambodia in the 1970s.
Archbishop Ncube told Channel 4 News (UK) that the targets of Operation Murambatsvina 'are by and large urban dwellers. It seems there is a 'peasantrification' drive hereÖthese people are being forced to go to the country, but there is a drought in the country, Zimbabwe [this year] only produced a quarter of the food it produced five years ago.'
He added: 'The South African government cannot talk about interference, they have done nothing but support Mugabe. Mugabe is killing his own people here. Prime Minister Mbeki has lost all reputation in Zimbabwe for supporting a dictator who is killing his own people.'
Observers say that the Zimbabwean authorities are engaged in some reconstruction now, but that it is tiny compared to the devastation. President Mugabe has pledged 3 trillion Zimbabwean dollars (325 million US dollars) for 1.2 million houses and plots of land by 2008. However analysts say that he does not have the resources to deliver.