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24 August 2001

Thabo Mbeki asks churches to promote conflict resolution in Southern Africa

cf. WCC Press Release, PR-01-28, of 13 August 2001

Speaking to a World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation and representatives of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) last week, South African president Thabo Mbeki urged both the WCC and all other religious bodies in Southern Africa to help resolve conflicts in the SADC (Southern African Development Community) region. The WCC delegation was in South Africa on the first leg of a ten-day (14-27 August) visit to Southern Africa that included Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

At the 16 August meeting at the state house in Pretoria, President Mbeki said SADC requires the churches' help in two areas: the land question in Zimbabwe and the ongoing war in Angola. SADC heads of state had tried everything in their power to bring the 41-year-old war to an end, to no avail. Mbeki reported that the Angolan rebel (UNITA) leader Jonas Savimbi and the Angolan government are not on speaking terms; fortunately, however, Angola's president Josť Eduardo Dos-Santos has agreed that only dialogue and not military action can end the conflict.

Like the political leaders, religious bodies in the region are in a dilemma as to how to address this war. According to a WCC delegation member from Angola, Rev. Caetano, the churches are not united on the issue. WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser suggested that a meeting of all religious groups in Angola with the government and rebel groups might be a way to move forward. "The problem of Angola cannot be dealt with from outside, and the WCC can only back up and support the churches," Raiser noted.

On the land question in Zimbabwe, president Mbeki reported that Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe had recently agreed to a visit to Zimbabwe by the six SADC heads of state. "We agreed that the group needs to intervene. It will talk with commercial farmers, war veterans, landless people and all other stakeholders in the land question in Zimbabwe," he said. He also emphasized that Zimbabwe's critical economic situation, especially a food shortage predicted before the end of the year, needs immediate attention. "It is only now that the political leadership is realizing that they are in serious trouble," Mbeki said. He challenged Zimbabwe's opposition parties not only to criticize the government but also to focus together on the coming crisis.

The WCC delegation's four-day visit to South Africa coincided with SACC's 2nd Triennial National Conference on the theme "With Christ in Africa Today". Preaching at the opening worship service, Raiser challenged the Christian community to be the salt and light of the world. Examples of that, he said, were to be found in the role played by South Africa's churches during the apartheid regime; in Brazil, where the churches fought for Indigenous people's rights; and in the former German Democratic Republic where churches became a source of inspiration and encouragement for a non-violent revolution.

Addressing the conference, SACC president Bishop Mvume Dandala highlighted some of the challenges South Africa faces seven years after the fall of apartheid. "It is stated that the legacy of apartheid continues to haunt the South African nation. This legacy has manifested itself in a myriad of ways, including landlessness and massive impoverishment of the majority of our people and the accumulation of property and wealth by beneficiaries of the past regimes," he declared.

War spills over to Namibia
The war in Angola was also a major focus on the next leg of the WCC tour. The war in Angola has spilled over into Namibia's Kavango and Caprivi regions, and UNITA has been laying anti-personnel mines there.

The five-day (17-22 August) WCC visit to Namibia began in the capital, Windhoek, and ended in Rundu, on the border with Angola, where a government transit camp facilitates the transfer of refugees to a larger camp; close to 20,000 refugees, mainly from Angola and central African countries, are living in the latter camp.

Addressing a gathering of Angolan church leaders, officials of the Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN) and some Angolan and Namibian residents of Rundu, Raiser reminded the churches that they themselves can change the situation in their countries.

"Churches must unite in order to find a solution to the endless war in Angola. Outside intervention is not viable if people inside the country have lost hope," Raiser said. The delegation had come to listen to the churches directly involved and see how the WCC could help in the decisions made by the two church bodies, he said. "At this point we can only be in solidarity with you," he concluded.

CCN general secretary, Rev. Nanbula Kathindi, reported that Namibia's churches are providing Angolan refugees with shelter, food and clothing; they also conducted an ecumenical service in Rundu in solidarity with the Angolan refugees and Namibian victims of Angola's war.

Speaking on behalf of the Angolan delegation, which had come to Rundu specifically to meet with the Namibian Church leaders, the president of the Council of Christian Churches in Angola, Rev. Luis Ngiombi, announced the formation of an interreligious council. Comprised of the Catholic Church and some evangelical churches, it focuses on peace and helps distribute food to internally displaced people. It is hampered by financial constraints within the Christian Council, but is supported by the Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa (FOCCISA) and CCN.

After two days of listening to the churches in Angola and Namibia describe their plight, the Rundu meeting asked Angolan church leaders to keep all the neighbouring Christian councils informed on progress towards or barriers to peaceful resolution of the conflict. FOCCISA called for pastoral visits to Angola to increase, and challenged all Southern African churches to pressure their governments to take the conflict as a serious priority. Lastly, it was decided that the Angolan churches will compose a prayer for worldwide solidarity, and that the WCC and AACC will distribute the prayer through their networks.

Before leaving Namibia the delegation, together with members of the CCN, paid a courtesy call to Namibia's president, Sam Nujoma, who thanked the WCC delegation for visiting the country. Commenting on the Angolan conflict, President Nujoma noted that "Although the Lusaka protocol fell by the wayside, political will to end the war will definitely continue," and assured the delegation that the conflict is being taken seriously not only by the churches but also by his government.

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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.