Archbishop of Canterbury on 'healing' Zimbabwe trip

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams addressing thousands in Harare The archbishop of Canterbury was greeted with cheers during his sermon

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Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has delivered a sermon in Zimbabwe as part of an African tour to try to heal divisions within the Anglican Church.

Dr Williams urged those at a Eucharist in Harare's National Sports Stadium to shun violence and intimidation.

Nolbert Kunonga, a renegade bishop who backs President Robert Mugabe, has been accused of inciting violence against Anglicans who do not support him.

Dr Williams has asked to meet Mr Mugabe during his two-day visit to Zimbabwe.

Dr Williams hopes to address the issue directly with the president, who is a Catholic, despite warnings it could give the president an opportunity to make political capital.

More than 15,000 people gathered for Sunday's service in Harare.

The service was moved to the stadium after the city's Anglican cathedral was taken over by Mr Kunonga, BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said.

Silencing criticism

During his sermon, the archbishop addressed the issue of intimidation.

"How strange it is that we so often behave - yes, even we who are Christians - as though we cannot survive unless we silence all voices of challenge or criticism," he said.

He also referred to violence and its link to Africa's natural resources.

Analysis

In publicly seeking a meeting with Robert Mugabe, Rowan Williams is taking something of a risk.

The Zimbabwean president, who routinely blames his country's history as a British colony for its problems, has no reason to favour the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dr Williams has questioned Mr Mugabe's political legitimacy, and written an open letter holding him responsible for the persecution of Anglicans.

The archbishop has been warned that Mr Mugabe might simply use a meeting as a way of boosting his standing, making political capital without making significant concessions.

The former Bishop of Harare, Nolbert Kunonga, who appears to be Mr Mugabe's protege, has already accused Dr Williams of being a "a British diplomat representing neo-colonial interests".

In contrast, Mr Kunonga - who has declared himself an archbishop - is reported to have described Mr Mugabe as a "prophet from God".

Dr Williams might feel that being received by the president would further boost the status of his oppressed followers in Zimbabwe as authentic Anglicans.

But the archbishop is taking no chances.

If there is a meeting he intends to hold a news conference afterwards, to put his own interpretation on the event.

He said: "God has given so many gifts to this land. It has the capacity to feed all its people and more. Its mineral wealth is great.

"But we have seen years in which the land has not been used to feed people and lies idle; and we have begun to see how this mineral wealth can become a curse - as it so often has been in Africa, as people are killed and communities destroyed in the fight for diamonds that will forever be marked with the blood of the innocent."

Urging people to turn away from violence, the archbishop said: "Listen. Not only to the voice of those who suffer but to the voice of God himself, grieving over the way we ruin his creation, the voice of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, longing for his people to open their hearts to justice and peace and mercy."

And Dr Williams also touched on the issue of HIV.

He said: "The Church could not exist with any integrity if it forgot that every person is of immeasurable value in God's eyes and so immeasurably worthy of our attention and service.

"In this country in recent years, you, our Anglican brothers and sisters, have been more and more active and courageous in this practical service, and in reminding the whole society of the universal dignity that the gospel implies.

"You have also been faithful to those who suffer from the HIV pandemic, which has ravaged a whole generation; and, like Christians elsewhere in Africa, you have been at the forefront of challenging the stigma that can make the suffering so much more bitter and can prevent people from facing the problem honestly."

The BBC's Brian Hungwe, who attended the service, said the sermon was "very well received".

Women cheering Dr Williams received a rapturous response to his sermon

He said the references to violence and intimidation in regards to diamonds drew particularly loud cheers from those in the stadium.

The archbishop, who is due to leave Zimbabwe on Monday, is also due to visit grassroots church projects caring for orphans and HIV sufferers.

The Church in Zimbabwe has been bitterly divided since 2007, when the former Bishop of Harare Nolbert Kunonga separated from the Anglican communion amid rows over the ordination of gay priests and the policies of Zimbabwe's government.

Dr Williams expelled Mr Kunonga - a staunch supporter of Mr Mugabe - but Zimbabwe's courts ruled the ousted bishop should retain control of church buildings in the capital.

Tear gas has been fired into churches which have remained loyal to Dr Williams, and churchgoers have been beaten as they have taken part in services.

Critics have accused Mr Kunonga of using people loyal to President Mugabe's Zanu PF party to carry out the attacks.

Showing 'solidarity'

The country's violent regime has come under criticism from the Church in the past.

In 2007, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, cut up his clerical dog collar in protest at Mr Mugabe's regime, saying he would not wear it again until the president had left office.

The archbishop's nine-day tour started in Malawi on Thursday, where he marked the 150th anniversary of its branch of the Anglican Church. He also visited Church initiatives, including a Mothers' Union literacy circle.

Dr Williams' spokeswoman has said he aims to "show solidarity" with fellow Anglicans and their bishops who serve the community despite "disruption, intimidation and even violence".

The archbishop will close his tour in the city of Kitwe, in Zambia's copper belt, where he will preach at another outdoor Eucharist and attend a national clergy conference.

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