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Lutheran leader acknowledges churches’ mistake over Mugabe

Arusha, Tanzania, 25 June (ENI)

The Zimbabwean-born general secretary of the 68-million-strong Lutheran World Federation, the Rev. Ishmael Noko, has said that those who have criticised churches for lagging behind secular society in taking leadership over troubled Zimbabwe are justified in their point, and that churches have made a mistake in assessing the country’s president, Robert Mugabe.

Noko was speaking at a press conference the day before the opening of the 25-30 June gathering of the LWF’s main governing body, its council, which is meeting in Arusha in northern Tanzania.

The Lutheran leader spoke on 24 June during increasing global criticism over the way in which President Mugabe has been attempting to cling to power following recent election losses.

Some Zimbabwean civil rights leaders have lamented divisions in the country’s churches, and have accused the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, the country’s largest grouping of Christian denominations, of not speaking up enough about atrocities meted out to people suspected of voting against Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party in March elections.

Noko told journalists, in answer to a question, "I am also part of that group of church leaders who have been criticised." He added, referring to Mugabe, "We had not expected that this would be the outcome." He said many people had originally expected that somebody could go from being, "a guerrilla leader" to "State House" as president.

Eighty-four-year-old Mugabe has governed Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980. He had previously been a leader in the armed struggle during the 1970s against the illegal white minority government that ruled the then British colony of Rhodesia.

Noko added that a realisation had come that, "Those leaders who were in the forefront of the struggle for freedom from oppression … were not necessarily taking the right path afterwards."

In the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma, lawmakers have been pressing for greater debate on Zimbabwe, at the same time as the United Nations Security Council declared that an election in the southern African country scheduled to take place on 27 June would not be free and fair. That was a signal that more African leaders are now taking a stand on the troubled southern African country.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete has flown to Swaziland for emergency talks on 25 June with several other southern African leaders about the crisis in Zimbabwe.

Noko said the Lutheran body was likely to speak out on Zimbabwe during its council meeting of more than 100 church leaders near the foot of Africa’s highest mountain. The theme of the gathering is, "Melting Snow on Mount Kilimanjaro: A Witness of a Suffering Creation".

In South Africa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, on 24 June said international intervention is necessary in Zimbabwe before the worst happens. In an interview with the CNN television network, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town asserted that Zimbabwe is, "degenerating into one of the worst nightmares you could imagine".

"I said, almost a year ago, I said, it looked like this man [Mugabe] is bonkers. And that we need to intervene," Tutu noted. He was asked what he would say to Mugabe given the opportunity. "I would say to him, ‘Look, man, you had a reputation that many people respected as a liberation fighter. You liberated your people from the shackles of colonial rule, and there was a chance of your being able to salvage a great deal of that legacy’." Tutu said he would add, "Please, please, for your own sake, for the sake of Zimbabwe, for the sake of Africa, step down."