It’s Sunday morning at St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Bulawayo and the pews are crowded. Pius Alick Ncube, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church here in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, peers out at the assembled parishioners over the rims of a pair of thick bifocals and takes a breath. Then he bellows forth his rage. "This government doesn't have the holy spirit," he fumes. "They know what I think of them." A collective sigh moves through the crowd. In the farthest aisles, men and women clutch at each other, laughing and snickering. A few exchange knowing glances. "I'm not going to let them off the hook," Ncube continues. "These men are liars. They are murderers. They are only working to make themselves rich."
It is not easy to be a voice of opposition in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe; legions of secret police and government enforcers make sure of that. When opposition activists do speak out they are often kidnapped and beaten and left in the open, or by the roadsides miles from their homes. Many thousands more have fled over the years. But Ncube, a bespectacled quiet man who lives next door to St. Mary's, where he preaches, has stayed behind in his hometown, a bastion of anti-Mugabe opposition. And every day that he does, he gets angrier and angrier at what he says are government crimes against the people. "This government kicked 700,000 people out of their homes, these were good homes, some of them had running water, some of them had electricity," he rails to the faithful, and then pauses as the crowd nods its head in a collective sign of approval. "And the government tore these houses down." Ncube is referring to what has become known in Zimbabwe as Operation Murambatsvina, a 2005 government “slum-clearance” operation in which entire housing settlements were torn down en masse, their residents--many of them opposition supporters--forcibly removed and told to disappear. Many thousands of the victims remain homeless. "How can they have the holy spirit if they don't care for their own people?" Ncube asks.
Ncube has made it his personal mission to deliver prayers that indict Mugabe. For his critical public stance, Ncube, who speaks in a quiet, deliberate voice and often keeps his eyes lowered to the side, has earned increased scrutiny from the state. He believes his phone is tapped. He has received death threats. State agents routinely follow him around on his visit to local parishes or public events. They even recently paid a visit to his home beside the church. But Ncube is undeterred. "I will not excuse him anything," he says. "Mugabe is an evil man and the only way for him is to be kicked out of power."
The once-quiet country priest has stepped up his rhetoric in recent months. In early March, Ncube and several other bishops met in Quera, about 100 miles from Bulawayo, to discuss what role, if any, the church should play in Zimbabwean politics. On April 5, the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a pastoral letter criticizing Mugabe for his human-rights violations. Entitled “God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed,” the letter was read out in churches across Zimbabwe. Government officials promptly described the letter as malicious and inaccurate, but Ncube was buoyed by the reaction from his flock. "They were very pleased, they told me, ‘for so long we were wishing you would talk’," Ncube says.
The letter, and the public criticism it received from the state, galvanized the church leadership and its faithful followers. Now the effects have begun to trickle down to the diocese and parish level. Every Friday, churchgoers are asked to fast for Zimbabwe. "Since the publication of the letter it has been uniting people," Ncube says. "People are taking very seriously [that] either we get peace in this country or else if things worsen, some people will die of starvation."
For years the Protestant and Catholic churches have played an ambiguous role in Zimbabwean politics. Many of the country's religious leaders have historically supported Mugabe, though Ncube claims the dire economic situation has forced them to reconsider their views, and that many have now switched sides. But others remain critical of the archbishop’s public stance, arguing that the church should remain above politics. "There are a lot of people who are saying that I'm too outspoken," Ncube says, "They say I'm too political, that I should be more neutral, more colorless as it were, but I rejected it. We are facing a crisis here." At least nine bishops have criticized Ncube's position and have refused to vote with him on key church matters. The government has also made it difficult for Ncube to pursue his religious projects in Zimbabwe. It recently refused to extend the work permits of several of Ncube's Polish, Indonesian and Indian priests. Rumors have been started, claiming variously that Ncube is gay and that he has had children with a nun. The police also paid a "visit" to Ncube's mother in Bulawayo. They asked her how he grew up, when he was born. "They did that just to make me feel small," he says.
The mainstream political opposition in Zimbabwe is happy to see Ncube and others playing a more active role. "The church has been very compliant with this regime," says Morgan Tsvangirai, the principal leader of Zimbabwe's main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). "They were slow in giving their own condemnation. I'm not surprised that more recent outrage reflects the societal attitude. I'm glad that they've joined the struggle. Better late than never."
The April 5 letter has spurred Ncube to pursue other avenues as well. Since then, he has helped to organize a gathering of several church groups, including the Zimbabwe Bishops Conference and the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe to produce a 50-page document that he hopes will serve as a sort of blueprint to show the government what needs to be done to save his ailing country. The document is based on extensive polling of people in rural areas and uses their answers as the basis for recommendations on issues as diverse as the economy, land reform and education.
Ncube says that while he would like to see people "take action" to bring Mugabe down, it would have to be peaceful and nonviolent, and that the Zimbabwean armed forces would have to be convinced to stand with the opposition. "We're not going to get freedom by playing it safe all the time," he says.
For now, Ncube, like many Zimbabweans, is putting his hopes in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) plan that aims to bring both opposition and government parties to the same negotiating table in the hopes of brokering a peaceful transition of power and a constitutional reform. But he's wary of Mugabe's motives and deeply disillusioned by the infighting in the MDC, which has generated despair among his flock. "People come to my door crying and starving," he says. "I'm ready to even walk in front of places and be shot, but people must be convinced. If they are unconvinced, I'm not going to risk my life." Clearly, though, he already has. The question is how many other Zimbabweans are ready to do the same.