George Austin explains how the behaviour of the World Council of Churches in past decades could have encouraged Robert Mugabe’s belief that his actions have the Churches’approval

Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has declared that ‘only God’ gave him the power he wields as president and only God can take it away. If for ‘God’ we substitute ‘the World Council of Churches’, then the claim is not without substance. But now if Gods spokesman in the person of the Archbishop of York is successful in his call for Mugabe to answer for his crimes, then maybe the people of Zimbabwe can eventually be saved from the ‘disease, starvation and systematic abuse of power by the state’ that presently afflicts them.

To answer for what he describes as ‘their crimes against humanity, against his countrymen and women and for justice to be done’, Sentamu declares that ‘Mugabe and his henchmen must now take their rightful place in the Hague’ and face an international court of justice.

Unquestioning support

As for the WCC and its early sanc-tification of this regime, there must be some kind of reparation on their part, for in the Sixties and Seventies the WCC gave unquestioning moral and financial support to ZANU, Mugabe’s so-called ‘freedom fighters’ against the white government of Ian Smith. As Smith’s tenure on power began to fade, it was the more peaceful, non-Marxist ZAPU party led by the Methodist Bishop Muzorewa which seemed destined to lead the new state, with ZANU working in coalition with ZAPU.

This was not to be, to the delight of the WCC who had only given their support to Marxist groups, including the ANC in South Africa and SWAPO in what became Namibia. Apartheid in South Africa and similar policies in neighbouring states were cruel and indefensible. In Southern Rhodesia, Smiths Selous Scouts waged war on the militants and were said to use torture in their treatment of prisoners. This brought upon them a rightful condemnation by bodies like the WCC and its counterpart, the British Council of Churches.

But at the same time, bombings, murders and tortures by the African ‘freedom fighters’ were brushed aside by the WCC and BCC They were not ‘terrorists’ but ‘freedom fighters’, and anyone who said otherwise was ‘a racist’. With independence for Zimbabwe, the collaboration between
ZANU and ZAPU soon came to an end when a large arms cache, possibly planted by agents of ZANU, was discovered in ZAPU-owned property and Mugabe was able to use this to begin a brutal crackdown on their supporter. Mugabe’s notorious Fifth Brigade rampaged in areas sympathetic to ZAPU, again without a word of denunciation from the WCC.

With such blind support from a body that represented the Churches of the world, it is unsurprising that Mugabe believes he has God’s support in the destruction he has inflicted on the people, the land and the financial structure of what was once one of the richest countries in Africa.

Accusations of racism

Those within the churches who dared to challenge the actions of the WCC were themselves denounced as racists, and the fear of this condemnation silenced many critics. I tried to do so at a BCC Assembly and after the discussion a senior member of the Free Church Federal Council approached me to assure me of his support. I asked him why he would not do so publicly. ‘Because I could not face what you have had to face from these people,’ he replied. And a Baptist leader, also a member of the WCC, gently (and chillingly) explained to me that ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking the eggs.’

I was a delegate to the WCC Assembly in 1991 in Canberra, and was taken aside beforehand and ‘warned’ not to raise the issue of detainees of SWAPO who had been ‘transported to camps in Tanzania’, though in fact I did not know of this until that moment.

In 1970, the WCC had set up its Special Fund of the Programme to Combat Racism, and much of it was used to finance the so-called ‘freedom fighters’. In 1978 by far the largest sum ($125,000) went to SWAPO, while in 1977 $80,000 was allocated to Mugabe’s organization, by then known as the Patriotic Front.

Moreover, at that time, while it cannot be said that all bodies to receive grants from the Fund were exclusively Marxist or militant, it was usual – especially where there was a possibility of choice – that the organization to which a grant would be allocated was the Marxist or extreme left-wing body rather that the moderate, the violent rather than the non-violent, the confrontational rather than the conciliatory.

It is hard to realize now that in the Seventies and Eighties the WCC was a powerful organization, forever in the news both in Britain and throughout the western world, as indeed was the BCC in the United Kingdom. The BCC has thankfully disappeared into oblivion, while the WCC is but a pale shadow of its former self.

Call for repentance

But if the WCC is less newsworthy and perhaps less influential, it mustbe said that this year Dr Samuel Kobie, the WCC general secretary, in a letter to the UN secretary general, has expressed concern about the situation in Zimbabwe and about the activities of its protege, Robert Mugabe. With it he enclosed a dossier compiled by churches in South Africa citing the atrocities committed by Mugabe’s forces -a complete change of direction from the unqualified support given during the final decade of the twentieth century.

But it is not enough. That support can only have encouraged Mugabe to believe that he had the moral support of the Christian Churches whatever he did; that the atrocities he committed somehow had won God’s approval.

Archbishop Sentamu quoted Martin Luther King: ‘We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.’ If European states which profited from the slave trade in Victorian days are encouraged to apologize for their actions to the descendants of those slaves, then surely the silence of the WCC in the face of such evil before and after independence in Zimbabwe now demands that a public repentance be offered to the suffering masses in that benighted country.
We await this – but with little hope.