The Salvation Army is being urged to take immediate action and reinstate a missionary doctor it recently dismissed from the Howard Hospital in Zimbabwe, where supporters have warned a humanitarian disaster is brewing.

Canada-born Dr Paul Thistle was dismissed in August under unclear circumstances, a decision that led to violent protests by outraged Chiweshe residents. The hospital, meanwhile, has been left to operate at limited capacity, and many patients have been either turned away or discharged without full care. Dr Thistle was the only surgeon there.

The doctor was given 24 hours to leave the hospital and then 48 hours to leave Zimbabwe, with no explanation from the Salvation Army other than that the decision was apart of ‘internal processes’. He has been barred from the hospital, but is refusing to leave the country while a criminal case hangs over eight of his colleagues, who were arrested and charged with ‘inciting violence’ during the protests in Chiweshe (Mashonaland Central).

An international network of doctors and supporters has since been trying to convince the Salvation Army to reinstate Dr Thistle because of the looming crisis his absence has created. The Interfaith Friends of Howard Hospital group has had several meetings with the Salvation Army, both in Canada and at the international headquarters in London.

But according to the group’s chief coordinator, Dr Michael Silverman, the Salvation Army has reneged on promises it made to the group to first undergo a review of the situation at Howard Hospital before making a final decision about Dr Thistle’s fate. He said they have reiterated their position that Dr Thistle must leave Zimbabwe by October 5.

A replacement is only meant to take over at Howard Hospital in December. “It just doesn’t make any sense. They haven’t given any explanation why he has to leave. I believe it is something internal in the Church, but they haven’t made anything clear,” Dr Silverman said.

He explained that the situation is likely linked to a financial grant Dr Thistle had secured for the Howard mission, which was then withdrawn because the Zimbabwean leadership of the Salvation Army refused to adhere to transparent accounting for the money. The leadership, which is believed to be heavily influenced by Joice Mujuru as a senior Salvation Army member, said it did not need to account for how the money would be spent.

“It isn’t clear if Dr Thistle’s dismissal is because of this, but I believe it was,” Dr Silverman said.

He added that the key concern now is for the fate of the hospital, and the hundreds of thousands of people who have come to rely on its service over the past 16 years. He explained how Dr Thistle was integral to the existence of the once thriving facility, and without him, “it only spells disaster.” “The once thriving hospital is operating at 10% capacity. Seven thousand patients in Chiweshe are receiving Anti-Retroviral Therapy, including 3,000 registered at the Howard Hospital’s Tariro HIV/AIDS/TB Clinic. These patients are now at risk of defaulting on their treatment.

Eight of the Howard Hospital’s nurses have been arrested following unrest [after] the dismissal of the Thistles. And approximately 1,500 orphans and vulnerable children have been left without support. International funding is in jeopardy, as donors cannot guarantee their funds will be used for their intended purpose. The humanitarian crisis with people needlessly dying has caused an international outcry,” Dr Silverman said.