BY SIMON CALDWELL
THE CON I ROVERSIAI decision to send the England cricket team to play a world cup match in Zimbabwe was taken in spite of a plea from all the major Christian churches there to stay away, it has emerged.
The request was made just three days before the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) announced on Tuesday that the national team would play its first round match in the capital, Harare, on February 13.
The Christians Together for Justice and Peace, an ecumenical group based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, had asked that all first round matches — which will also include Australia, Pakistan, India, Namibia and the Netherlands be played outside the country.
It also urged the Zimbabwe cricket team to refuse to play in a gesture of "solidarity with our suffering, oppressed and neglected people".
"We call on the International Cricket Council [ICC] to come to Zimbabwe, meet the people, join them in the queues, hear their stories and discover that the outward calm is superficial for deep down in themselves they are angry but also cowed by fear of tear gas, bullets, instant arrest. victimisation, torture, famine,it said in a statement.
The ECB had been under pressure to boycott the event amid mounting evidence that the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF supporters were deliberately withholding food supplies from areas of the country — principally Matabeland — where people voted against him in the presidential elections in February last year. The region is threatened by famine and the United Nations estimates that six million people are facing death by starvation.
But the ECB also came under pressure to send the team from the ICC, and faced a hefty fine if it pulled out of the match since it had signed a Participating Nations Agreement.
Announcing the decision, ECB chief executive Tim Lamb said: 'The cancellation of one cricket match will not make the slightest difference to the Mugabe regime."
Fr Nigel Johnson, a British Jesuit serving in Zimbabwe, said the World Cup would be used for local political propaganda purposes by Mugabe. "It would have been a good idea if they had stayed away." he said.
But he added: "People talk about the sports boycotts on South Africa in the Apartheid years, but you can't compare it. South Africa then was a very sports-orientated nation. Cricket here is a very irrelevant sport."
As the situation continues to deteriorate in Zimbabwe, fault lines have begun to open within the Catholic Church. Divisions have prompted the clergy of the Archdiocese of Bulawayo to issue a statement in defence of their archbishop, Pius Ncube, who has grown increasingly isolated because the other Catholic bishops have refused to support his outspoken condemnation of the activities of Mugabe and the Zanu-PE The secretary general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Zimbabwe even issued a public statement critical of Archbishop Ncube's pronouncements.
In their letter, the Bulawayo clergy congratulated the archbishop for his "determination to speak the truth".
They said: "We condemn those who harass, who attack, who plan evil against the archbishop. We condemn those who attempt to silence his voice .., we urge Archbishop Pius Ncube to continue in the footsteps of the strong Hebrew prophets and Christian martyrs who were persecuted and silenced in their day by weak and corrupt leaders. We urge the archbishop to take his inspiration Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who was made to suffer at the hands of evil men."
They added: "There is no place for neutrality in the face of the evil which is destroying our nation."
Editorial Comment: Page 9