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ZIMBABWE-VIOLENCE Feb-9-2011 (560 words) xxxi

Violence concerns Zimbabwe church as country prepares for election

By Bronwen Dachs
Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- Zimbabwe church officials are becoming increasingly concerned about heightened violence and intimidation as the government prepares for an as-yet-unscheduled national election.

Their concern stems from lagging implementation of parts of an agreement on the formation of a unity government following violence-plagued elections in 2008 and a surge in propaganda favoring President Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference said.

Father Frederick Chiromba, the conference's secretary-general, said the media portrayals of Mugabe were "not helpful" in a Feb. 7 telephone interview from the capital, Harare. He said the media "should be reporting in a way that promotes national healing and reconciliation."

Deep wounds remain following the most recent national election, which saw Zimbabwe engulfed in a series of crises after Mugabe was re-elected by default when challenger Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change withdrew from a runoff election a week before the vote, citing violence against his party's supporters. Although the two sides eventually agreed to form a unity government with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister, deep distrust remains.

The bishops said in a January pastoral letter that the agreement "bore signs of hope for the restoration of peace in the country," but that the lack of its full implementation has led "to the continued isolation of the country by most of the international community."

The value of these "positive steps" has been eroded by lack of "collective commitment and political will," the bishops said.

The prelates called on the parties in the coalition government to work together "to achieve national healing and social progress."

"Without this sincere engagement, we will continue to be dogged by violence, political intolerance, hate language in the public media, injustice, rigging of elections, fear and deception," the bishops said.

They also urged Zimbabwe's leaders to "prioritize poverty eradication by using proceeds from natural resources like diamonds and the land for the development of the whole nation and all its citizens."

Anticipating rising violence, a branch of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe asked that an "effective security plan" be developed to ensure the safety of its members from politically motivated intimidation. The commission's February newsletter noted that some of the trauma healing workshops the commission sponsors in the Harare Archdiocese were canceled because of political tension.

The Southern Africa Coalition for the Survivors of Torture, a Zimbabwean rights group, reported mob attacks, threats, assaults, questionable arrests by police and at least one shooting in Harare, according to the Associated Press.

Other violence of concern to Catholics is aimed at Anglicans loyal to their official church, Father Chiromba said, noting that "police are chasing people away" from Anglican churches in Harare.

He said the Catholic Church and other churches are allowing Anglicans to use their buildings for worship services. Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury said in late January that Anglicans are being bullied, harassed and persecuted by police and a faction of priests who back an excommunicated bishop loyal to Mugabe.

Zimbabwe's churches have not spoken out as a group against the violence because "we are waiting for guidance from the Zimbabwe Council of Churches," Father Chiromba said. The council, to which the bishops' conference belongs, was asked in August by the heads of various denominations "to investigate the situation and come up with recommendations."

No investigation has begun yet.


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