Thousands of worshippers cheered the Archbishop of Canterbury as he held mass in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, after a contoversial bishop led protests against the religious leader’s presence in the country.
Archbishop Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, entered Harare’s City Sports Centre to loud cheers on Sunday by thousands of supporters who filled the stadium.
Zimbabwe is the most contentious stop on Williams’ three-nation African tour, where political troubles have engulfed the Anglican Church.
Earlier on Sunday, a crowd led by Nolbert Kunonga, an excommunicated Anglican bishop and fervent backer of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president, demonstrated outside the main cathedral in Harare to protest the archbishop’s visit.
Kunonga has control over the country’s main cathedral, schools and the church bank accounts.
Kunonga was excommunicated in 2007 by the main Anglican Province of Central Africa with the approval of Williams and accused of inciting violence in sermons supporting Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
The accusations have been denied by Kunonga, who insists he split from the Anglican church because of its position on gay marriage. Mugabe is also known for a hard-line anti-gay stance and has described gays and
lesbians as “worse than pigs and dogs”.
Williams’ visit comes amid a bitter dispute between the breakaway Anglican bishop and mainstream Anglican church worshippers.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Harare on Sunday, Kunonga said: “[Rowan Williams] is irrelevant. He has divided the Anglican Church the world over. And we’re feeling the impact of the division he has created.”
The Anglican Church in Zimbabwe has been divided since Kunonga’s excommunication. The rift has left mainstream Anglicans without places of worship and they have allegedly experienced intimidation and threats of violence.
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Last month Kunonga took over the Shearly Cripps Orphanage, which is home to at least 80 children and named after its Anglo-American missionary founder who died in 1952.
A ruling in August by Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court allowed Kunonga to retain control of Anglican properties until a court appeal by the mainstream Anglican church is resolved. That ruling was made by Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, who, like Kunonga, is a supporter of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.
“The property belongs to us because of the court judgments, Mugabe was not there in courts when we won,” Kunonga said when asked whether the ruling was politically motivated.
For weeks Williams has sought a meeting with Mugabe, a Roman Catholic, to discuss the split. He had no firm answer by Sunday.
George Charamba, Mugabe’s spokesman, did not say if the two men would meet, but told the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper that if they did speak, the 87-year-old president would challenge Williams about gays and sanctions.
“Fundamentally, he would want to know why the church of the British state, the Anglican Church, has remained so loudly silent while the people of Zimbabwe, and these people include Anglicans, are suffering from the illegal sanctions,” Charamba said.
“The second issue that the president wants this man of God to clarify is why his Anglican Church thinks homosexuality is good for us and why it should be prescribed for us.
“He thinks the archbishop will be polite enough to point to him that portion of the Great Book [that] sanctions homosexuality and sanctions sanctions.”
Western countries led by former colonial power Britain have maintained financial and travel sanctions on Mugabe and senior members from his party since 2000 over charges of human rights abuse and electoral fraud, which Mugabe denies.