Outspoken Zimbabwe archbishop says Church officials made him agree to stay silent about human rights abuses and political violence on visit to England
BY SIMON CALDWELL
THE MOST OUTSPOKEN Catholic cleric in Zimbabwe was subject to a media blackout during his first visit to England — at the insistence of Church officials in Britain.
Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, who has won international praise for his prophetic condemnation of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, visited London and concelebrated Mass in Westminster Cathedral on Sunday May 11. He spoke to non-governmental organisations working in his country the day after and held meetings with Cardinal Cormac MurphyO'Connor, Bishop David Konstant of Leeds, chairman of the bishops' department for international affairs, and Bishop John Rawsthome of Hallam, chairman of Cafod, the overseas development agency of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.
But he did not give any interviews to the Press or broadcast media and none was made aware of his visit.
Archbishop Ncube later flew to the United States, where last week he enjoyed a higher profile even though he said he wished his visit to remain low key while South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi attempted to broker a deal between Mr Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
In Washington DC, Archbishop Ncube was praised publicly by Secretary of State Colin Powell and spoke openly of the plight of the people of his country in an interview in The Washington 'Mmes.
Almost at the same time, the Pope criticised Mr Mugabe's violent land reform programme during a meeting with Kelebert Nkomani, Zimbabwe's Ambassador to the Holy See. John Paul 11 said: it is an error to think that any real benefit or success will come simply by expropriating large landholdings, dividing them into smaller production units and distributing them to others ... [land reform] should be in full accord with national policies and those of national bodies."
On his return to Zimbabwe, Archbishop Ncube said his visit to Britain was kept out of the public eye because the Catholic bishops, "under the auspices of Cafod", feared that his "role as a mediator for peace" would be compromised if he publicly criticised President Mugabe, who views Britain as his biggest enemy. He said he was told that if he spoke to the Press about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, it might cause a further deterioration in his "already strained" relationship with Mr Mugabe, a situation which could put his life at risk,
Archbishop Ncube told The Catholic Herald that he was happy to abide by the publicity ban. An article in The Spectator of May 24 had earlier alleged that the "Catholic establishment" wanted to block altogether the visit of Archbishop Ncube but Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Ancram, a
Catholic, made it known at a Church party in London on April 29, the week of the Low Week meetings, that he would cause a public fuss if Archbishop Ncube were stopped.
Bishop Konstant this week vehemently denied the allegations made by Peter Oborne, the author of the piece. `This is absolute nonsense, period," said the bishop. "There was no press ban. It is very straightforward. The article is not true. It is really quite extraordinary how they [The Spectator} were able to, if you
like, twist a perfectly straightforward matter in the way that they have done."
Bishop Konstant said he had "no idea" why no media were notified about the archbishop's visit. Archbishop Ncube, however, told a group of NGOs on May 12 that the two-hour briefing he gave them on the situation in Zimbabwe was "100 per cent off the record" because of an agreement he had with the English and Welsh bishops. Matthew Heard of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, who was at the meeting, said the ban surprised him because only a month earlier Archbishop Ncube joined the other eight Catholic bishops of the country in signing a Lenten pastoral letter which explicitly condemned the "frightening" corruption, lawlessness, food shortages and the abuses of power committed by the regime. Mr Heard said "We were more or less expecting him to comment along that line. I believe he didn't say too much when he was in Westminster Cathedral as well." After the Mass in Westminster, Ncube was twice applauded by the congregation when cathedral administrator Fr Mark Langharn thanked him for his visit and hailed him a "heroic and outspoken defender of human rights in Zimbabwe".
The archbishop told the congregation: "I ask you to continue to pray for Zimbabwe. It is a very difficult situation when leaders who started out being very exemplary all of a sudden forget people. "There is widespread starvation. Thanks to Cafod and the World Food Programme half a million starving people are receiving food. But conditions arc difficult. There are 100 per cent price increases every week. We hope these difficulties will be overcome by God's mercy."
The day after, on Monday May 12, Tim Livesey. a spokesman for the Cardinal who is on secondment from 10 Downing Street, explained his failure to inform The Catholic Herald of the archbishop's visit by saying he had been "unaware" that Ncube was coming.
But some sources suggested however that Mr Livesey and Joachim Van Halosz, another of the Cardinal's press officers, had liaised regularly with the Zimbabwe Democratic Trust in the run up to the visit.
Archbishop Ncube's outspoken stance against the political violence of the Zanu-PF party has led to his arrest by Mugabe's police. He is followed, his phone is tapped and has been subject to abuse, death threats and intimidating visits from members of the security forces. Yet he continues to campaign against "violence, hunger and hardship", leading protests at the Queen's Sports Club stadium in Bulawayo ahead of a World Cup cricket match there in March.
Neither Cafod director Julian Filochowski nor a spokesman for the Cardinal would comment.