Police have barricaded routes to a shrine east of Zimbabwe's capital to block an annual pilgrimage by thousands of Anglicans to honour the Mozambique-born martyr Bernard Mizeki, who was killed during an 1896 rebellion against colonial rule.
"The police mounted a roadblock at the turn-off and told us we were not allowed to conduct commemorations at the shrine," one of the affected parishioners told local media after the recent march.
Anglican Bishop Chad Gandiya said in an email statement: "Just as people from all over the country and beyond started converging at the Bernard Mizeki shrine, the police have turned up in full force and are driving the pilgrims away."
He added, "Please pray for us and all the pilgrims who are equally shocked by this unacceptable behaviour by the police."
A week earlier Zimbabwe police allowed a similar pilgrimage to the same shrine by a breakaway Anglican faction led by expelled bishop Nolbert Kunonga and some of his followers.
Home affairs minister Kembo Mohadi, a member of President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, had assured all worshippers of police protection during the pilgrimage.
"The other group was allowed and they did it peacefully," Mohadi told journalists. "Why should we not allow the other group to do the same? If anyone tried to disturb them we will intervene."
In a statement, Bishop Gandiya, who replaced Kunonga, an avid support of Mugabe who formed his own Anglican group, said, "The custodians of the law are the ones denying us access, threatening to arrest us or use teargas, to force us out. There are church wardens who have been arrested and some who bear marks of beatings."
In Geneva, the Ecumenical Zimbabwe Network (EZN) came out in support of Gandiya, and the Anglican church in Zimbabwe. "Since January 2008 the crisis in the Anglican church has turned into clear and unacceptable violations of the freedom to worship and freedom of association for thousands of worshippers across Zimbabwe," the EZN said.
"Over the past two years bishops from the Anglican diocese of Harare have reported a series of cases where worshippers were locked out of churches they had attended for generations. They have reported police and militia attacks and intimidation of church wardens, members of the Mothers’ Union and other congregations," the EZN said. It called on Zimbabwe police to use restraint, professionalism and even-handedness in dealing with those seeking entry into their places of worship or as they worship in open air.
The EZN is an alliance of Evangelical, Protestant and Roman Catholic organisations as well as representatives of Zimbabwe churches in what is now called "the Diaspora", based in the Global North and Southern Africa, that was formed in 2007. "For the sake of all Zimbabweans regardless of religious and political affiliation, the path of democracy and tolerance is the only way forward," it said.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]