Zimbabwe, The Catholic Church in
ZIMBABWE, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Formerly known as Southern Rhodesia, the Republic of Zimbabwe is an inland country in southern Africa, bordering Zambia on the northwest, Mozambique on the northeast and east, South Africa on the south and Botswana on the southwest and west. A plateau region possessing a tropical climate, Zimbabwe's high veld (plateau) rises in the center, while mountains stretch across to the east. The Victoria Falls are located at the country's northwest corner. Natural resources include coal, chromium, asbestos, gold, nickel, iron ore, copper, lithium and tin; agricultural products, grown in the veld region, consist of cotton, corn, tobacco, wheat, coffee, sugarcane, peanuts and livestock, although recurrent drought conditions make farming difficult.
Named after the British businessman Cecil Rhodes, the region formerly known as Rhodesia was explored by the British late in the 19th century, and it became a colony administered by Rhodes's British South Africa Company until 1923. The region was self-governing as part of the British Commonwealth, and from 1954 to 1963 it was part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In 1965 the white government declared its independence from Great Britain and rejected political participation by blacks. In 1979, following U.N. sanctions and a militant uprising, the right wing government recognized the principle of black majority rule. In 1979 the government promulgated a new constitution and Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister of an independent Zimbabwe; the name was taken from that of an ancient city in the region. While tribal differences continued between Shona (Mugabe) and Ndebele (Joshua Nkomo), they were resolved by 1987 and the state of emergency was lifted in 1990. Mugabe retained control into 2000, as a severe drought and the AIDS epidemic continued to take its toll on the country. A land reform program instituted in 2001 further hurt the economy by forcing tenant farmers out of work when the government confiscated lands owned by whites.
History. The first attempt to evangelize the area was made in 1560 by the Portuguese missionary Gonçalo da Silveira, who followed the Zambezi River and established a mission in the region then known as Monomotapa. After baptizing a local chief and a few others, he was slain in 1561. Endeavors by later missionaries to reach this section were unsuccessful. In 1759 the mission was
formally abandoned. Not until 1879 was a Zambezi mission successfully reopened; it encompassed all of Rhodesia, much of Zambia and part of Mozambique. The Jesuits, who had charge of the mission, were well received by the Matabele chief Lobengula, but they were unable to begin missionary activity before his death in 1893. Thereafter progress was steady and the hierarchy was established in 1955 with Salisbury (now Harare) as archdiocese and metropolitan see for the country.
Independence. In 1965 Prime Minister Ian Smith made a declaration of independence from Great Britain that was followed in 1969 by a new constitution designed to maintain the white governing elite. In a country where the racial imbalance was on the order of 20 blacks to one white, this was unjust, and was duly pronounced as such by Church leaders. Exacerbating the problem were several other factors. One was economic: land ownership was divided almost equally between blacks and whites, resulting in the fact that the black population, most of whom were landless, were relegated to the lower economic classes. The other factor stemmed from the fact that the country's borders—arbitrarily drawn—contained two broad ethnic/linguistic groups, the Ndebele and the Shona, as well as several minor tribal groups, which made political unity difficult. The conflict that was sparked by Smith's move was not simply black vs. white, but was complicated by tribal rivalries. By 1972 black nationalist leaders, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe, were leading guerrilla forces in what would become a seven-year civil war against the Smith regime.
During the civil war, the work of the Church was severely hampered and, in some areas, brought to a standstill. Missionaries in the villages remained supportive of guerilla forces, supplying them with food and medical supplies, with the consequence that some missions were the focus of government attack. Because of the increasing danger from both sides in the conflict, many missions were abandoned until peace was restored in 1979.
The concern of the Catholic Church for issues of social justice during the 1970s were expressed through the
work of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, an arm of the bishops' conference. The commission's episcopal chairman, Bishop Donal Lamont, was expelled from the country in 1977 after his Rhodesian citizenship was withdrawn because of his criticism of government policies. The commission accumulated evidence that government security forces used various propaganda tactics to repress its critics, even disguising government security personnel as guerillas. This tactic caused the guerillas to be blamed for inhumane treatment of villagers.
In 1979, after a civil war during which over 25,000 people lost their lives, a settlement was reached between Prime Minister Smith and three black leaders: Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and Chief Jeremiah Chirau. These four men constituted an executive office during a transition period, which ended when a new constitution was promulgated and general elections were held. On April 18, 1980 the country proclaimed its independence as Zimbabwe, with former rebel leader Robert Mugabe, himself a practicing Roman Catholic, being elected as prime minister. Church schools, which were nationalized by the new government, were eventually returned to their founders due to inadequate resources. Although friction continued during the next seven years as Mugabe and rival rebel leader Joshua Nkomo battled over tribal differences, the two were reconciled when their political factions merged in 1987. That same year the country held its first free elections, in which Prime Minister Mugabe was also elected executive president. In 1997 a report was published by the country's bishops detailing human rights abuses perpetrated by the government from 1981 to 1987. Elections in 2000 were preceded by violence directed primarily against Mugabe's detractors during which 32 people were killed.
Into the 21st Century. By 2000 there were 142 parishes, tended by 148 diocesan and 270 religious priests. Other religious, which included approximately 100 brothers and 1,000 sisters, directed the country's hospitals, dispensaries and orphanages. In addition, religious served as teachers in Zimbabwe's 72 primary and 56 secondary schools, as well as at the Catholic University in Harare. Chief among the Church's concerns by 2000 was the spread of AIDS, which infected one out of every four citizens, reduced the life expectancy of the average Zimbabwean to 37 years of age, and had created orphans of almost a million infants and young children by 1999. The infection rate was the highest in the world, in part because the belief system of several indigenous faiths required healing by prayer rather than through modern medicine. Members of several Christian churches completed a long-running project, translating the Bible into the majority language Shona, in 2000.
Bibliography: s. c. rupert and r. k. rasmussen Historical Dictionary of Zimbabwe (Metuchen, NJ 2001). p. mason, The Birth of a Dilemma: The Conquest and Settlement of Rhodesia (New York 1982). c. f. hallencreutz, Religion and Politics in Harare, 1890–1980 (New York 1982). n. bhebe, Christianity and Traditional Religion in Western Zimbabwe, 1859–1923 (Harare 1975). Bilan du Monde, 2:735–744. Annuario Pontificio has annual data on all dioceses.
[j. f. o'donohue/eds.]
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