Zimbabwe: pastoral council defends outspoken Archbishop

 The Pastoral Council of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe has come to the defence of Archbishop Pius Ncube, after a state-owned newspaper launched a campaign to discredit him. For years, Archbishop Ncube has been one of the most outspoken critics of Robert Mugabe's government, expressing his concerns publicly about the regime's corruption and abandonment of human rights - while other church leaders remained largely silent. Last week the Chronicle published a scathing attack on the archbishop suggesting that he favoured one tribe, the Nbeles, over the Shona and others. It also reported that as a result of this tribal bias, large numbers had abandoned the Church. Responding to the story, in an open letter, reported by the Missionary News Service, the Bulawayo Pastoral Council said the lay people of the Catholic Church were disgusted by the "on-going campaign of lies and persecutions" of Archbishop Pius Ncube. Leading the pastoral community, Fr Nigel Johnson SJ, said the reports were false and irresponsible and clearly intended to divide the Catholic community along ethnic lines. The statement said: "We expect our local newspaper to inform and educate us with the truth but you have allowed the newspaper to become an organ of cheap political propaganda. The paper has now become a disgrace to the city and to the people of Bulawayo. "Please leave our Archbishop out of your election campaign. Pius Ncube detests all violence and intimidations. He preaches nothing but the Biblical truth of love, peace and justice for the poor." Defending the Archbishop, who has received many death threats through the years, the statement said the Christian Church had a long history of martyrs who have died in faith at the hands of tyrannical dictators. It concluded: "We are proud of our faith, proud of our church, our faith teaches us to speak the truth and to defend the poor against powerful oppressors, our archbishop preaches a prophetic message and we shall be happy to die for that message." * Tensions are growing in Zimbabwe with the elections due to take place on 9 March. The laws give the police sweeping powers. Violent seizures of white-owned farms by the government-backed 'war veterans' have contributed to the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar and the economy. The population is facing increasing economic hardship, and shortages of fuel and staple foods. In January the Zimbabwean Catholic Bishops' Conference issued a statement appealing to the political leadership to denounce violence, and expressed the hope that the elections would be held in a 'free and fair atmosphere'. But just last week the Anglican Bishop Nolbert Kunonga expressed his support for the government. During a national prayer meeting at a stadium in Harare he said President Mugabe was "more Christian than most people present." The Zimbabwean Independent newspaper reported yesterday that the Anglican church were "not happy" with the statement and were planning to have an informal talk with Archbishop Kunonga.

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