Anglicans reclaim churches in Zimbabwe

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World-Anglican Christians in Zimbabwe gathered in Harare square Sunday to reclaim, cleanse, and re-dedicate their historic cathedral after the nation’s top court returned it to its congregation.

Men, women, and children danced and sang spirituals to celebrate the end to a five-year lockout at the hands of an excommunicated bishop.

Standing at the head of a large procession, Bishop Chad Gandiya struck the main doors of the church three times with a pastoral staff to have them opened. He blessed the interior with signs of the cross and presided over the first Eucharist service held by Anglicans since they were banished from churches nationwide.

Church leaders excommunicated Bishop Nolbert Kunonga in 2007 after he was accused of inciting violence in sermons supporting longtime President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. He continued to lead a campaign against the regional Anglican Church, accusing it of supporting same-sex marriage. Church leaders denied those accusations, saying Kunonga only made the claims to justify his power grab.

In outspoken sermons, Kunonga backed ZANU-PF militants in violent elections and echoed much of Mugabe’s criticism of the United States and Britain. He then proceeded to seize church bank accounts and cars. His followers occupied church schools, orphanages, and other properties, evicting orphans and forcing church members to use Catholic church halls or homes for services. Kunonga’s supporters also turned many churches into dormitories and food kitchens for their group. Authorities claimed they turned other churches into flea markets and drinking halls that attracted prostitutes, garbage, and rats.

Kunonga also removed burial plaques, tombstones, carvings and commemorative displays honoring prominent colonial-era citizens. Monuments to the black soldiers of the colonial African Rifles regiment, who fought for Britain and its allies in the First and Second World Wars, are believed to have been destroyed.

Last month, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court declared the seizures illegal and ordered Kunonga to hand back all church assets. During Sunday’s celebration, Gandaya praised church members for enduring their period of “exile” from their places of worship and years of “persecution and pain” with faith and courage.

“We must all ensure this never happens again,” Gadiya told cheering and ululating congregants Sunday. “Let us be ready for the journey from the past to the future. Let’s press on to rebuild our church.”

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