BY SIMON CALDWELL
JEsurrs working in Zimbabw this week set their faces boldly against the "evil" regime of President Robert Mugabe.
The 194 members of the Zimbabwean Province of the Society of Jesus — which includes 35 Britons — unanimously agreed to release two strongly-worded statements to condemn the state-sponsored violence that has been afflicting the African nation in the run up to next month's presidential elections. in which Mr Mugabe faces his toughest challenge to his 22 years of power.
The first statement makes an explicit public offer of sanctuary to anyone fleeing political violence orchestrated by thugs loyal to Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF Party, while the second attacks political indoctrination and manipulation of Zimbabwe's youth by the government. and warns of civil war.
"We have seen various groups. their numbers increasing in recent weeks. who drive • people out of certain areas by • violence, prevent people from • entering certain areas. abduct
1rpeople, prevent people from ii. expressing their views, and k coerce them into expressing _11. contrary views," say the Jesuits r in the statement headed A Time P for Deciding.
"Such behaviour is illegal. It is also sinful, because it is an offence against God in whose image we are made. It is evil,
.1 and the product of Satan.
They add: "The Jesuits in Zimbabwe have decided that, in the present crisis of violence and anarchy, we shall do what we can to prevent such violence and, when we can, to protect potential victims of such violence. And when this comes too late, to assist the victims. "To refrain from such a stance in the present situation would be a failure to respond to the immediate needs of the people of Zimbabwe. It would be a failure to assist in taking up the Cross which evil people have laid on the back of the people of God.
"Wherever we are able to, we shall provide places of sanctuary. That is. places where we insist that no violence shall take place. Places where no weapons of any kind shall be brought, where victims or potential victims of violence can receive protection. where their pursuers shall be. as far as in our power. prevented from entering."
The second statement is a direct appeal to the youth of Zimbabwe to resist attempts to recruit and train them in "illegal and criminal activities", "All this reminds us of the methods of opportunistic political leaders of other times and places." it says.
"For example, during Hitler's rule in Germany, young people were recruited under the guise of patriotism and nation-building. They were then used by their leaders as agents of terror and death, which ultimately brought about the destruction of an entire nation.
We therefore appeal to the youth of Zimbabwe to be aware of these dangers. We call on the youth to recognise when elders attempt to manipulate them to do criminal work.
"Remember. this nation is not at war. it is simply preparing for an election. After that election, with the help of God, the nation will return to normality. But if bands of youth persist in violent activities. they could bring the nation to a state of civil war."
By issuing the statements, the Jesuits have aligned themselves with Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, previously the sole voice among Church leaders to oppose Mr Mugabe, 77, a Catholic.
Their intervention comes as Zanu-PF militiamen stepped up their campaign of terror against Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the nation's free press.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Eon= recorded 16 political killings last month. the highest monthly total since the violence began two years ago.
Overall. more than 100 black MDC supporters have been murdered and hundreds more tortured and beaten, while thousands of white farmers have been driven from their land.
This week. petrol bombs were hurled into the offices of The Daily News, Zimbabwe's main independent newspaper, based in the second city of Bulawayo, as part of ongoing efforts to silence critical voices.
British Jesuit Fr Nigel Johnson, 57, a former dentist who has worked in Zimbabwe since 1972, was part of the team that drafted the statements.
Chaplain to the University of Harare until the government instructed the Archbishop of Harare to remove him, he now runs Bulawayo-based Radio Dialogue, a communal radio station which must record and distribute its programmes on cassette tapes because the government has refused it a licence to broadcast.
He said: think a lot of the Jesuits feel that the churches in general are not really coming out and saying what needs to be said and what needs to be done. The [Zimbabwe] Catholic bish
ops' conference has just issued a statement which says we want to have peace. It is not really saying that things are terrible.
"We have got to get rid of this rotten, corrupt and evil regime, that's one thing. Secondly, we got to have legal structures and a decent constitution that allows balances and controls against any president or prime minister or government.
"Mugabe and his government, for the first five or six years, were wonderful in terms of education. health and in so many other ways. but recently they have become totally and thoroughly corrupt"
Four British Jesuits — Fr Martin Thomas, Fr Christopher Shepherd-Smith, Brother John Conway and Fr Desmond Donovan — were murdered 20 years ago in Zimbabwe's war of liberation, along with German Jesuits Fr Gregor Richert, Brother Bernard Lisson and Fr Gerhard Pieper.
Fr Johnson admitted there was a risk of violence to opponents of Mugabe but says the Jesuits have to accept it. "Many of us lived duough the liberation war when bullets were flying all over the place and when you come to live in aplace like this you take it for granted that life can be a bit risky," he said.
The Jesuits have worked in Zimbabwe for nacre than 100 years and the current Provincial, Fr Fidelis Aukonori, is a black Zimbabwean.
Because of theiesuits' fourth vow to go anywhere at the behest of the Pope, the Society of Jesus has a tradition of serving in dangeral s situations around the world.
Tony Montfard of Jesuit Missions in London has appealed for prayers.