Christian leaders and organizations worldwide have welcomed the announcement of an agreement to form a unity government in Zimbabwe, while also saying that many challenges lie ahead for the southern African nation.
"We have an opportunity," the Rev Ishmael Noko, a Zimbabwean theologian who is general secretary of the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation, told Ecumenical News International on 12 September. "It is a great opportunity for the dark clouds that have been hanging over Zimbabwe for all these months and years to be lifted."
South African President Thabo Mbeki had announced the previous evening that an agreement on a power-sharing deal between Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's leader since the country's independence from Britain in 1980, and Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Movement for Democratic Change party.
Mbeki said details of the agreement would be released when it was signed in Harare on 15 September.
"The churches should position themselves to be guarantors if this agreement is truly signed," said Noko. "They should ensure that it is implemented, and they need to stay as custodians, on behalf of the society, to see that the agreement is honoured."
Mugabe won another five-year term as president in June as the result of a one-candidate presidential run-off election after Tsvangirai pulled out, citing a wave of violence against MDC supporters.
According to official results that the MDC disputed, neither candidate gained an overall majority in the first round of the presidential election in March. In parliamentary elections held at the same time, Mugabe's Zanu-PF party lost its majority of seats for the first time since independence.
David Coltart, a Zimbabwean Christian who helped found the MDC in 1999, described the agreement, which also includes a smaller MDC faction, as "historic".
In a statement made available to ENI, Coltart said, "I am confident that this agreement, imperfect as it is, marks a significant step forward."
He said the agreement would entail the setting up of a government that would initiate a process of constitutional reform to include civil society. He added that the process would last 18 months, by which time a new democratic constitution must be implemented that would also include a time frame for new elections.
"The inclusive government will have Robert Mugabe as president with greatly reduced powers to those he enjoys today. There will be two, largely ceremonial, vice-presidents from Zanu-PF. Morgan Tsvangirai will be the prime minister. Although he does not have absolute power he does have substantial power," said Coltart.
In Nairobi, the Rev Mvume Dandala, a South African Methodist who is general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches, said he hoped the agreement would be implemented.
"Sometimes groups agree, and in the process of implementation they disagree," said Dandala. "We hope this will not happen for the people of Zimbabwe, who have suffered for a long time. We urge the parties to implement the agreement for the benefit of the people of Zimbabwe."
The AACC official noted that the projected agreement in Zimbabwe follows a similar one in Kenya after disputed elections at the end of 2007. Hundreds of people died in violence that followed the Kenyan election stand-off, and hundreds of thousands more became homeless before agreement was reached to form a national unity government.
"What we saw in Kenya was an example of the fragility of peace in Africa," said Dandala. "We will not want any country to go through that."
The World Student Christian Federation, which has been supporting the efforts of the Student Christian Movement in Zimbabwe, said it welcomed the announcement.
"WSCF also fervently hopes that this historic agreement marks Zimbabwe's return to the rule of law and to effective governance for and by the people," the group said in a statement issued from its Geneva headquarters. "We hope that the political leaders will be guided by the principles of good faith, and be faithful to the agreement and work selflessly towards its proper implementation."
Meanwhile, police in Masvingo, a town in southeast Zimbabwe have withdrawn approval that had been initially granted for a Zimbabwe Christian Alliance peace march.
The march was due to take place this weekend, and participants from Zanu-PF and Movement for Democratic Change groups, as well as churches and civic society organizations were expected to take part.
Reporting by Stephen Brown (Geneva), Trevor Grundy (Canterbury, England), and Fredrick Nzwili (Nairobi).
[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.]