A proposed law to regulate non-governmental organisations in Zimbabwe would effectively criminalise much Christian charity work and deprives millions of impoverished Zimbabweans of aid - justice and peace warned yesterday. The bill, proposed ahead of key elections, does not interfere with strictly spiritual aspects of church work, but requires all charitable organisations to register with the state under stringent conditions. It also bans overseas funding. On Monday, the multi-denominational Christians Together for Justice and Peace joined mounting protests against the bill, calling it "another attempt to whittle away our rights and privileges as Christians, and to restrict or imprison us within a strictly religious domain. "Will churches be allowed to feed the hungry, care for orphans, educate the poor, empower people to think for themselves without fear of being answerable to the government?" Are we now to submit to a man-made authority?" the alliance asked in a statement. President Robert Mugabe has repeatedly castigated church groups, charities and human rights groups for criticising his increasingly autocratic government, and accused them of fomenting dissent. The proposed Non-governmental Organisations Bill would require that such groups register with a state-dominated regulatory council and disclose details of their funding and programmes. Funding from overseas would be illegal. Groups that continue to operate after being denied registration would be closed down and their officials subject to arrest. Parliament, dominated by Mugabe's Zanu PF party, is expected to approve the bill within weeks ahead of legislative elections in March. Welfare groups warned that the bill's ban on foreign funding threatens assistance to millions of impoverished Zimbabweans, reeling from the effects of the worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1980. "The bill criminalises a sector that is providing social safety nets to a lot of communities,'' said Jonah Mudehwe, head of the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations. This in a country where more than 70 per cent of the 12.5 million people live in poverty, a quarter of the population is infected with HIV and one million children are orphans, he said in a statement on Sunday.
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