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29 May 2000

WCC to send ecumenical peace observers for Zimbabwe elections

cf. WCC Press Release, No. 12, of 26 April 2000
cf. WCC Press Update, No. 13, of 19 May 2000

A World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation visiting Zimbabwe at the invitation of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) announced today its decision to send international ecumenical peace observers to Zimbabwe for a period leading up to and following the elections scheduled for 24-25 June 2000.

During an eight-day visit the team - sent by the WCC with the support of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) - held extensive discussions with the officers and staff of the ZCC. It visited church leaders in the cities of Mutare, Bulawayo and Gweru. It heard the perspective of the "freedom generation" of youth, represented through the Student Christian Movement. And it met with a range of civil society organizations, including the ZCTU (Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions), as well as with the ruling political party ZANU-PF, the main opposition party MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) and other minority parties.

At the close of its visit, the WCC team reported to ZCC officers on three major concerns: land, growing violence, and the forthcoming general elections.

"Most of the church representatives we met regretted the recent land occupations... All regretted the violence and the deaths of Black farm workers, White farmers and those involved in the invasions," said WCC International Relations coordinator Dwain Epps. In order to redress "the lasting injustice resulting from the dispossession of native Zimbabweans' lands by the colonizers", a land policy "that has had the benefit of wide consultation among all concerned" must be implemented. Church representatives are calling for intensive efforts by the churches to develop essential elements of such policy and recommend them to the nation, government and political parties, Epps reported.

The team heard about violence related to land invasions, and also that citizens, especially poor people, are being intimidated in the run-up to the elections. Referring to a decision at the WCC's eighth assembly in Harare in 1998 to launch an Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence in 2001, churches are called "to support those here who believe that there are more creative ways to deal with conflict than to resort to violence," team leader Melaku Kifle from Ethiopia said.

The team heard that open expression of opinion through the media, campaign rallies and voter education is being stifled, thus creating fear that the elections cannot be fully free and fair. At the same time, it was impressed that ordinary citizens and opposition parties are insisting that everyone go to the polls. The churches' campaign to educate voters and convince them that their ballots will be confidential is encouraging, Epps said.

"Given that the greatest threat to citizens now is violence, we have decided to support the 'peace monitors' being put in the field by the churches here by sending ecumenical 'peace observers' from churches in Africa and other parts of the world to assist in protecting people's rights," he announced.

The churches' role
The ecumenical team heard sincere appreciation for Zimbabwe's churches' efforts to take a unified, non-partisan, principled approach to the current situation. At the same time it heard Christians confess that they and their churches have not spoken out clearly or soon enough to prevent violence, and that their own divisions have weakened their witness for peace, justice and the dignity of all in the sight of God.

The delegation encouraged the churches to speak out as faithful disciples of the Prince of Peace. It appealed to the political parties to respect the variety of opinion that gives strength and vitality to a democratic society. And it appealed to the government to protect the rule of law and fundamental freedom of expression for all citizens without distinction.

"Senior government officials and others expressed appreciation to the WCC for its solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe during the liberation struggle and for having accompanied the independent nation ever since," Kifle said. "In holding the last WCC Assembly here churches around the world gave a strong sign that they intend to walk alongside the churches here... as they strive to fulfill the promises of the leaders of the freedom struggle.

"We pray that reason will now prevail over passion, and that the interests of the community will dominate over individualism, narrow personal power interests and violence... The eyes of this region and of the world are now on Zimbabwe. May God grant that what it does now may offer them a sign of hope and be pleasing in God's sight."

(The ecumenical delegation was composed of Mr Melaku Kifle and Rev. Dwain C. Epps from WCC International Relations, Mr Noel Okoth and Rev. Eddie Makue representing, respectively, the All Africa Conference of Churches' (AACC) general secretary and its International Affairs Commission, and Mr Aad van der Meer from ICCO, a WCC-related agency in the Netherlands.)

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.