BY JOHN HINTON
ZIMBABWE'S Catholic bishops have rallied to the defence of Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, accusing their government of orchestrating an "outrageous and utterly deplorable" smear campaign against him.
"Hate propaganda" and "character assassination" were being used as an attempt to divert attention from the catastrophe that Zimbabwe has become, the bishops' conference said in a statement from the capital, Harare.
State-controlled media has been providing continuous coverage of allegations that Archbishop Ncube committed adultery with his secretary, Rosemary Sibanda. But his supporters say the charges have been manufactured to distract attention from the 60-year-old archbishop's complaints against President Robert Mugabe's government.
The archbishop told a British newspaper that the regime was so evil it should be toppled by force. "It would be justified for Britain to raid Zimbabwe and remove Mugabe," he said. "We should do it ourselves but there is too much fear."
The allegations of sexual misconduct against Archbishop Ncube emerged just weeks later.
These involved the release of eight DVDs allegedly showing him having intercourse with different women, including two teenage girls. They have been circulated by President Mugabe's Central Intelligence Organisation. A former spy has also collected photographs said to have been taken by hidden cameras which have led to the archbishop being sued for £80,000 by Onesimus Sibanda, the ex-husband of his alleged mistress.
"The recent attacks by some politicians and the state media on the person of Archbishop Ncube, who is being sued for adultery, constitute an assault on the Catholic Church, to which we take strong exception," said the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference in its statement.
In a paid advertisement in Harare's Herald newspaper, they said the archbishop was being attacked in an effort to undermine his moral leadership. "We support him fully in his present painful personal situation and ask all our faithful to remember him in their prayers," the bishops said.
The bishops listed a litany of problems in Zimbabwe. "Freedom and fundamental human rights are violated daily with impunity, the shelves of the shops and supennarkets are empty, our currency has become worthless, the public health service has collapsed. the country's main roads are lined with tens of thousands of citizens waiting for public transport, corruption is rampant and young people are risking their lives daily and in growing numbers to escape the catastrophe that our country has become," they said.
The bishops added that the attempt to divert attention from these events by creating "hate propaganda and character assassination" against those Zimbabweans who, like Archbishop Ncube, have spoken out in defence of the oppressed, has not deceived ordinary Zimbabweans.
''Archbishop Ncube has courageously and with moral authority advocated social ' justice and political action to overcome the grievous crisis facing our country," they said.
"The Catholic Church has never been and is not an enemy of Zimbabwe," the bishops went on, noting that the Church's service to Zimbabweans includes running 60 hospitals, 174 schools and many orphanages. "Our record during the years of the liberation struggle speaks for itself."
The bishops pointed out that the archbishop's case was before the High Court of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo and should not be discussed in public until a verdict has been delivered.
"The constitution of Zimbabwe clearly defends the presumption of innocence of an accused person as a legal safeguard for a fair hearing before an impartial tribunal," they said.
"In complete disregard of these universally respected conventions, the state media had obtained and publicised in the news media for days on end video and photographic material which violated the most fundamental personal rights of Archbishop Ncube and were utterly offensive to the public."
Fr Nigel Johnson, a British Jesuit who works in the archbishop's diocese, said that the Zimbabwe government's tactics were typical of its aggressive reactions when ever it was criticised. "When the government was heavily criticised by the leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, two years ago, he was charged with treason. The result was that he was forced to expend all his energies fighting the charges instead of criticising the regime. When at long last the case came to court, he was acquitted but he had been effectively silenced for a long period of time."
He added: "Several priests were also arrested after Easter services after they read out the contents of a pastoral letter issued by the bishops' conference which was highly critical of the regime."
The harassment also extended to obstructions being placed on the renewal of work permits for priests, Fr Johnson said.
Zimbabwe is crippled by the highest rate of inflation in the world, unemployment of more than 80 per cent, and shortages of foreign currency and fuel. Food shortages are acute, large numbers of people are migrating to the neighbouring countries of South Africa and Botswana, and, with elections scheduled for March, political violence has intensified.
Archbishop Ncube has for long been a critic of President Mugabe's government. He has claimed, for instance, that people were dying of starvation and disease — including Aids — at a higher rate in Zimbabwe than were being killed in the war in Iraq or the conflict in Darfur.
Editorial comment: Page 11