Zambia: the church replies

June 21, 2011 in General, News

africanchurch_01Last month in Zambia, a letter from the country’s bishops was read at all Masses. It dealt with two issues. The central focus was the extensive criticism of the Church in the government-controlled media. A subsidiary issue was church doctrine, especially in relation to homosexuality. Irish Jesuit Michael J. Kelly, who has long been a Zambian citizen, offers a fascinating picture of the background to the bishops’ letter, and of the sort of conflict that the church has survived in many epochs and parts of the world. The drama in Zambia is still unfolding, but Michael would hope “to give the readers of AMDG Express some idea of the political shenanigans which currently are commonplace in Zambia and which form the background to the Bishops’ letter.”  


Michael J. Kelly SJ

Over a long period, but intensifying within the past twelve months, the government-controlled media (two national newspapers, as well as TV and radio channels) sustained what the Bishops’ letter called “a growing barrage of attacks” on the Catholic Church in Zambia. One of the newspapers featured articles drawn heavily from the more vitriolic type of Seventh-Day Adventist literature, portraying the Church (and in particular the Jesuits) as using every trick in the book to achieve a position of world hegemony. There were frequent criticisms of church practice, with numerous slurs and innuendos. For instance, the Minister of Education, herself a Catholic and ruling party spokesperson, said: “If the Catholic priests want, they can leave the Church and join politics so that they have money to start looking after the children they have produced.” Add to this that the official government spokesperson is a minister of one of the newer churches and is far from friendly to Catholicism.

Running parallel with this was government sensitivity to outspoken criticisms coming from Catholic priests. Some (but by no means all) of these priests were/are under suspension, or had withdrawn from active ministry, since they appeared to be getting themselves heavily involved in politics. But their statements were almost uniformly banner-headlined as “Catholic priest says …” or “Catholic Church says…” In addition there were statements of dissatisfaction with government practice coming from outspoken critics firmly within the Church, such as the retired Bishop of Mongu (Paul Duffy, an Oblate) and a weekly newspaper column from Pete Henriot SJ which was always factually based but which hit hard at corruption, neglect, absence of good policies, lack of pro-poor action, failure to live up to commitments, squandering of public monies, etc.
The wider background is that this is an election year (presidential, parliamentary and local government elections will probably be held in September or October) and the current government is hell-bent on retaining power and the Presidency. Hence it doesn’t brook opposition lightly. Further, the leader of the main opposition party is a well-known Catholic and hence the easy identification of the Catholic Church with the opposition. This means that undermining the opposition seems to call for denigrating the Church, and hence the steady build-up in public criticism of the Church, its personnel and its utterances.

The subsidiary issue, Church teaching on homosexuality, arose from remarks on homosexuality that the opposition leader made on Danish television. As far as I can gather, his position was that homosexuals had rights that should be protected; but the hostile government media paraded this as meaning that if his party won the elections, the door would be opened to the implementation of all “gay rights”, including the right to same-sex-marriages. Some Church personnel spoke out in defence of the rights of homosexuals and this in turn led to statements from the anti-church media that the Catholic Church promoted homosexuality. Paragraph 6 of the Bishops’ letter is a direct rebuttal of this position and some defence of the human rights of homosexuals.

What effect did the letter have? It was due to be read at Masses on 3rd June (Ascension Sunday) but was released much earlier, on 19th May, and was available to the media from then on. My interpretation is that it made the government run scared! Within a few days the ruling party called for dialogue with the Catholics “to resolve contentious issues that have brought unnecessary tension between the ruling party and the Church mother body”. Notice that I have slipped from “government” to “ruling party”. I think it is fair to say that the hostile articles and attitudes in the media could be attributed to the ruling party, but it would be difficult to pin them down as the views of the government; a fine distinction, but a necessary one where the borderline between government and party can be vanishingly indistinct. The government protects itself by not issuing adverse statements, since it feels the party will do so.

Before the end of May, the President went out of his way on a number of occasions to say that there was no conflict between the Church and the government; he spoke in a very supportive manner about the Church at the consecration in Mongu of the successor to Bishop Paul Duffy (who also spoke at the ceremony), and eventually it appears that the government-controlled media were instructed to desist from criticism of the Catholic Church. All of this was before the letter was read out at the Sunday Masses, and it appears that part of the thinking was the hope that this would not be done. But the letter was duly read out on 3rd June and this drew little comment from the public media.

I don’t think the conflict is over. The government media have now turned on Caritas Zambia, alleging that it is scheming to declare the opposition leader as the winner of the 2011 elections. This is largely because the United Nations has asked Caritas to oversee (and handle the resources for) the civil society monitoring of the election process, a move that is resented by other concerned bodies. One of yesterday’s papers stated explicitly that “Caritas Zambia has in the last few years taken an anti-government stance”. So we must wait to see if there will be further developments along these lines.