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WCC team recommends deployment of ecumenical peace observers for Zimbabwe elections

29 May 2000

Press Statement issued in Harare, 29 May 2000.

A World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation visiting Zimbabwe at the invitation of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) announced today its decision to send international ecumenical peace observers to Zimbabwe for a period leading up to and following the elections scheduled for 24-25 June 2000.

The five-member team sent by WCC General Secretary Dr Konrad Raiser with the support of the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Dr Ishmael Noko, has just concluded an eight-day visit to Zimbabwe. The team included senior members of the Geneva, Switzerland-based WCC International Relations staff, a representative of the General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), a South African member of the AACC International Affairs Commission and a representative of ICCO, a WCC-related agency in the Netherlands.

During its eight-day stay in the country, the team held extensive discussions with the General Secretary Mr Densen Mafinyani and the officers and staff of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches. It also visited groups of church leaders in the cities of Mutare, Bulawayo and Gweru. It heard the perspective of the "freedom generation" of youth represented through the Student Christian Movement. In addition, it met with a range of civil society organizations, including the ZCTU (Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions), and with political parties including the ruling party ZANU-PF, the major opposition party MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) and other minority parties.

Team leader Melaku Kifle, WCC International Relations staff member from Ethiopia, said that "the purpose of the visit was to offer support and encouragement to the churches of Zimbabwe at a critical moment in the nation's history. We have not come with fixed ideas, but rather to listen and learn from the churches and others in order better to understand the challenges now confronting the country, and to see how the world-wide ecumenical fellowship can accompany them now."

Reporting to the officers of the ZCC at the conclusion of their visit, the WCC team said that it had heard three primary concerns as it met church, government and political, and civil society leaders around the country: issues related to the land, the rising incidence of violence and matters related to the forthcoming general elections.


The Land

"Most of the church representatives we met regretted the recent land occupations led by war veterans and encouraged by government leaders," said Rev. Dwain Epps, WCC International Relations Coordinator. "All regretted the violence and the deaths of Black farm workers, White farmers and those involved in the invasions," he said, "and we join with them in denouncing these losses of precious, God-given life. The lasting injustice results from the dispossession of native Zimbabweans' lands by the colonizers, but the answer to this pressing problem must be found through respect for the law and the implementation of a considered land policy that has had the benefit of wide consultation among all concerned." The team reported that church representatives in different parts of the country had called for more intensive efforts by the churches to develop essential elements of such policy and recommend them to the nation, its government and political parties.


Violence

Recalling that at the Eighth WCC Assembly, held in Harare in December 1998, the churches had decided to declare an Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence, Kifle said "wherever we went now, people reported to us on the rising tide of violence in Zimbabwe. This alarms us and calls churches around the world to support those here who believe that there are more creative ways to deal with conflict than the resort to violence." The team heard concerns not only about the violence related to land invasions, but also that being used to intimidate citizens, especially the poor, in the period between the February referendum on a new constitution, and the forthcoming June elections.


Elections

The team heard almost universal complaints that the lead-up to the June elections had so skewed the democratic process that it would hardly be possible to anticipate an election that meets international standards. At the same time, it was impressed that ordinary citizens and opposition political parties insisted that everyone should come to the polls. Remarkable efforts were being made to make it possible for all citizens to vote without fear. The churches' campaign to educate voters and to convince them that their ballots would be confidential was encouraging. Based on the evidence presented to it, the delegation was deeply concerned that these elections could not be fully "free and fair" given the limitations on open expression of opinion through the media, in campaign rallies of various parties and through uninhibited voter education. "Nevertheless," Epps said "we respect and admire the determination of Zimbabweans to exercise their democratic rights to present candidates and to vote despite all the impediments. Given the fact that the greatest threat to citizens now is the fear of violence, we have decided to support the ‘peace monitors' being put in the field by the churches here through the sending of ecumenical ‘peace observers' from churches in Africa and other parts of the world to assist in protecting people's rights."

The role of the churches

The WCC delegation heard in several quarters sincere appreciation for the role the Zimbabwean churches were playing in providing a unified, non-partisan, principled approach to issues confronting society in this time. At the same time it noted Christians' confessions that they and their churches had not spoken out clearly or soon enough to prevent violence, and that their own divisions have weakened their witness for peace, justice and the dignity of all in the sight of God. It encouraged the churches in their will to speak out as faithful disciples of the Prince of Peace. It appealed to the political parties to respect the varieties of opinion which give strength and vitality to a democratic society and to do so without rancor or hatred. And it appealed to the government to fulfill its responsibility to protect the rule of law and the fundamental freedom of expression for all citizens without distinction. "Senior government officials and others have expressed appreciation to the WCC for its solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe during the liberation struggle and for having accompanied the independent nation ever since," Kifle said. "In holding the last WCC Assembly here churches around the world gave a strong sign to the nation that they intend to walk alongside the churches here and the society of which they are a part as they strive to fulfill the promises of the leaders of the freedom struggle. We pray that reason will now prevail over passion, and that the interests of the community will dominate over the individualism, narrow personal power interests and resort to violence that are so characteristic of this age of globalization. The eyes of this region and of the world are now on Zimbabwe. May God grant that what it does now may offer them a sign of hope and be pleasing in God's sight."

The members of the WCC delegation included Mr Melaku Kifle and the Rev. Dwain C. Epps from WCC headquarters in Geneva, Mr Noel Okoth from the AACC in Nairobi, Rev. Eddie Makue from the South Africa Council of Churches, and Mr. Aad van der Meer from ICCO in the Netherlands.