A recent cover story in The Tablet, the international Catholic weekly (June 25), was titled ‘Fear in the Pulpit’. It details the challenges facing Zimbabwe’s Catholic Church, which it says has been branded ‘an enemy of the state’ by Robert Mugabe and his ‘secret police.’

The Catholic Church made news again last week, this time in reports about the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace’s (CCJP) statement ‘urging political leaders to intervene to stop politically motivated skirmishes’ in Mbare in Harare.

Alouis Chaumba, the national director of  CCJP, warned that the reaction to this statement, which is critical of violence perpetrated against MDC supporters, could lead to an even tougher crackdown on Catholic clergy who are seen to be challenging the policies of the state.

I’m a commentator who thinks that it is right and good for clergy, on behalf of their churches and the Christ who they represent, to speak out against oppression and to take the side of those who are victimized.

But that’s easy for an academic, sitting at a computer in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to say. On the ground in Zimbabwe, there are real consequences for those courageous actions.

For example, The Tablet story relies on the testimony of a priest called Fr B, whose identity is concealed to offer him some protection. The Tablet summarised Fr B’s experiences:

He gave the example of a peace service at the Church of the Nazarene in the high-density Glen Norah suburb of Harare … that was broken up by riot police. A week later Fr Mark Mkandla was arrested in Lupane in Matabeleland by police unhappy with the content of his homily.

Fr B said that priests are today routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest and questioning. He himself feels hindered and censored by the constant presence of secret service personnel in his congregation who report back on his homilies. “There’s no freedom of speech. You preach that people are hungry and the moment you say people are hungry those in authority feel attacked. So you are an enemy,” he said. “Zimbabwe has become a police state.”

As a result, priests in Zimbabwe “don’t have any freedom to preach the Word as we would want to even within the Church because you never know what kind of visit you may get after Mass. You know that the secret police are attending and the moment you finish, things happen.” This might mean a telephone call telling the priest to come to the police station where he is interrogated. “If you are lucky you are interviewed and let go; if you are not so lucky you are tortured a little bit,” he states matter-of-factly, before adding: “Our phones are tapped. When you talk you can actually hear someone interfering! We know our internet lines are tapped all the time and so sending messages outside is very dangerous.”

Fr B’s story is not an unusual one. Peter Godwin’s latest book, The Fear, includes a litany of stories about how those who oppose ZANU-PF have faced violent intimidation, clergy among them. In fact, one of Godwin’s most dangerous experiences while he was in Zimbabwe researching the book was when agents of the state discovered him at a church service.

I think the fact that some organs of the Zimbabwean state feel the need to silence and intimidate clergy indicates that those clergy must be doing something right. They are striking a nerve, identifying abuses that some would rather cover up. But how effective their words and actions may be is debatable, especially when the security forces have so much power.

I’m reminded of a story that American Jim Wallis tells about a visit to South Africa during the apartheid era. (Although I find the story inspiring, I am not saying it would work at your everyday mass or church service in Zimbabwe):

I’ll never forget my first day at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa. A political rally had been called and canceled by the government, so Archbishop Tutu said, “Okay, we’re just going to have church then.” And church he had. They gathered together in that Cathedral and the police were massing by the hundreds on the outside and they were there to intimidate, to threaten, to try and frighten all the worshipers. I will testify, being on the inside, that I was scared. You could feel the tension in that place. The police were so bold and arrogant they even came into that Cathedral and stood along the walls. They were writing down and tape recording everything that Archbishop Tutu said. But he stood there to preach. And he stood up, a little man with long, flowing robes, and he said, “This system of apartheid cannot endure because it is evil.” That’s a wonderful thing to say, but very few people on the planet believed that statement at that point in time. But I could tell that he believed it. Then he pointed his finger at those police standing along the walls of his sanctuary and said, “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked.” Then he flashed that wonderful Desmond Tutu smile and said, “So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” And at that the congregation erupted. They began dancing in the church. They danced out into the streets and the police moved back because they didn’t expect dancing worshipers.

From the safety of my desk I cannot really identify with the dangers that clergy, and many other citizens of Zimbabwe for that matter, face on a day to day basis.

But I can’t help but hope that they are sustained by the conviction, articulated by Desmond Tutu, that they are ultimately on the winning side, the side that works for justice and peace.