Anglican archbishop cheered in Harare
Harare - Thousands of worshippers cheered the archbishop of Canterbury on Sunday in a Harare stadium, after a renegade bishop aligned with President Robert Mugabe provoked a violent split in the Anglican Church.
Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans, entered the City Sports Centre to loud cheers from thousands of people who filled the terraces and the floor of the stadium that normally hosts tennis matches.
Archbishop Albert Chama, who represents the Church's Central African province, along with bishops from neighbouring Botswana and South Africa accompanied him into the venue in a show of solidarity.
Zimbabwe is the most contentious stop on Williams' three-nation African tour, where national political troubles have engulfed the Anglican Church.
Excommunicated bishop Nolbert Kunonga, a fervent backer of President Robert Mugabe, has seized all of the Church's property in Harare and moved to claim 3 800 properties in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries.
His supporters have violently forced Anglican faithful from churches, while also chasing teachers and nurses from schools, clinics and orphanages.
Kunonga has refused to meet Williams, telling Al-Jazeera: "He is irrelevant. He is responsible for dividing the Anglican commune world over and we are feeling the ripples and the impact of that division he has created."
For weeks Williams has sought a meeting with Mugabe, a Roman Catholic, to discuss the split. He had no firm answer by Sunday.
Mugabe's spokesperson George Charamba did not say if the two men would meet, but told the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper that if they did speak, the 87-year-old president would challenge Williams about gays and sanctions.
"Fundamentally, he would want to know why the Church of the British state, the Anglican Church, has remained so loudly silent while the people of Zimbabwe, and these people include Anglicans, are suffering from the illegal sanctions," Charamba said.
"The second issue that the president wants this man of God to clarify is why his Anglican Church thinks homosexuality is good for us and why it should be prescribed for us.
"He thinks the archbishop will be polite enough to point to him that portion of the Great Book [that] sanctions homosexuality and sanctions sanctions."
Mugabe and members of his inner circle, including Kunonga, are under a travel ban and asset freeze imposed by Britain and other Western countries because of a decade of violently flawed elections.
Mugabe is renowned for his anti-gay stance and has described gays and lesbians as "worse than pigs and dogs".
Williams has struggled to maintain unity in the Anglican communion amid disagreements over the ordination of female bishops in Britain, and of openly gay bishops in the United States.
No persecutions here
At his first stop in Malawi last week, Williams reiterated the Church's stand on gays, opposing violence and prejudice, but not supporting same-sex marriage or ordination of gay priests.
The Church of England said in July that it was reviewing its approach to same-sex relationships, an issue that has threatened to tear the Church apart - particularly in Africa where many leaders are more conservative than their European counterparts.
"On our side, it's evil. It's an abomination. It's contrary to human nature. It mutilates human dignity," Kunonga said of homosexuality, denying that politics played a role in the harassment of mainstream Anglicans in Zimbabwe.
"I don't know about persecuting. Those are utter lies. There are no persecutions here," he said.
The service at the stadium mirrors how most Anglicans in Harare now worship. Forced from their own property, they now pray in tents, parking lots or other churches.
Williams is expected to visit Zimbabwe on Sunday and Monday, and then head to neighbouring Zambia before returning to Britain on Thursday.