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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. There is no state religion. The Government generally recognizes all religions.

The Government does not require religious institutions to be registered. However, approximately 2 years ago the Office of the Registrar General considered whether to register such institutions and enforce a code of conduct because it became concerned with the growing number of religious schools, hospitals, and clinics that lacked internal controls. To date, no formal registration process has been put in place. However, religious organizations running schools or medical facilities must register those specific institutions with the appropriate ministry involved in regulating those areas. Similarly, religious institutions may apply for tax-exempt status and duty-free privileges with the Customs Department, which generally grants it.

Approximately 60 percent of an estimated population of 12 million belong to Christian denominations, with a little over 1 million of those identifying themselves as Roman Catholic. However, there are no reliable statistics on the exact number of Christian churches or other religious movements whose numbers are growing. There is a small Muslim population in the country, estimated at less than 1 percent, and the remainder of the population consists of Greek Orthodox, Jews, practitioners of traditional indigenous religions, indigenous syncretistic African religions that mix Christianity and traditional African culture and beliefs, a small number of Hindus, a few Buddhists who do not practice as an organized religion, and atheists.

The dominance of Christianity dates to the early contact of Portuguese traders and Jesuit priests with Africans in the region in the late 1500's. The Jesuits established churches and educational institutions in the Zambezi Valley. Several centuries later Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Dutch Reformed, and Salvation Army missionaries began to aggressively compete for territorial and spiritual monopolies throughout the country, resulting in "areas of interest" for each of these churches. Today, many persons identify with the Christian denomination that had the longest historical connection to their area. President Robert Mugabe is a Roman Catholic who professes to practice his faith actively, and many of those who make up the elite of society tend to be associated with one of the established Christian churches.

The Muslim community consists primarily of South Asian immigrants (Indian and Pakistani), migrants from other southern and eastern African countries (Mozambique and Malawi), and a very small number of North African and Middle East immigrants. There are mosques located in several large urban areas and a tiny number in rural areas. There are 12 mosques in the capital Harare. The Muslim community generally has been very closed. However, over the last 10 years the Islamic community has begun proselytizing among the majority indigenous population with increasing success.

The indigenous African churches combine elements of established Christian beliefs with some beliefs based on traditional African culture and religion. These churches tend to be centered on a prophetic figure, with members of the congregation identifying themselves as "apostles." These church members wear long white robes and head coverings. Many of these churches date back to the early 1920's, when there was widespread racial and religious segregation. Many of the founding fathers of African indigenous churches broke away from Christian missionary churches, and some of their teachings incorporate what has become known as "black consciousness." To a large extent, these churches grew out of the Christian churches' failure to adapt to traditional African culture and religion. A notable feature of the indigenous churches is the acceptance and promotion of polygamy. These indigenous churches have proliferated as a result of splits among the followers of the different "prophets."

Many persons continue to believe, in varying degrees, in traditional indigenous religions. These persons may attend worship in a westernized Christian church on Sundays, but consult with traditional healers during the week. Belief in traditional healers spans both the rural and urban areas. Traditional healers are so common that they are licensed and regulated by the Zimbabwe National African Traditional Healers' Association (ZINATHA).

There is some tension between the Government and the indigenous African churches because the latter oppose western medical practices that result in the reduction of avoidable childhood diseases and deaths in those communities. The traditional indigenous religions believe in healing through prayer only and refuse to have their members' children vaccinated. The Ministry of Health has only had limited success in vaccinating children in these religious communities against childhood communicable diseases. Human rights activists also have been critical of these indigenous churches for their sanctioning of marriages for underage girls.

The Government maintains a monopoly on television broadcasting through the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). The Government permits limited religious broadcasting on ZBC and advertising in the government-influenced press by the older, established Christian churches, as well as new evangelical churches and institutions, such as the 700 Club and World Vision. Programming produced by the U.S.-based Christian Broadcasting Network is aired on ZBC. The Government generally follows the recommendations of the Religious Advisory Board, an umbrella grouping of Christian denominations, on appropriate religious material to air. Muslims, who are not represented on the Board, recently have approached the Advisory Board about obtaining equal access to the airwaves. The Catholic chairman of the board is not opposed to recommending that Muslims be given broadcast time commensurate with their numbers in the country, as long as other religions are not denigrated in the material presented. However, the chairman acknowledged that other evangelical church groups are more hostile to Islam and are unlikely to support the inclusion of Islamic programming in the already limited religious broadcasting timeblock. The ZBC officials with whom the chairman has raised this issue informally are open to including Islamic religious material on ZBC.

Because of the country's British colonial and apartheid-like history, the vast majority of the black population was prevented from attending white government schools. Those blacks able to receive any formal education received it from Christian mission schools. Consequently, Christian educators trained the vast majority of the country's liberation war leadership, whose members later became officials in the Government. This situation has changed significantly since 1980 when the Mugabe government greatly expanded primary and secondary publicly funded education for the majority of the population. The Catholic Church operates 130 primary and secondary schools, which constitute a significant percentage of all the church schools in the country.

The Government permits religious education in private schools. The country has had a long history of Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist primary and secondary schools. Since independence there also has been a proliferation of evangelical basic education schools. There are Islamic and Hebrew primary, secondary, and high schools in the major urban areas. In addition, there are several institutions of higher education that include religious studies as a core component of the curriculum. There are two such institutions in Harare--the newly established Catholic University (this institution opened in 1999 and currently has 50 students enrolled, with plans for up to 2,000) and Arrupe College (a Jesuit seminary of instruction in the humanities and philosophy). There is one Methodist institution in Mutare, the Africa University, and a Seventh-Day Adventist College in Matabeleland. The state-supported University of Zimbabwe also has a Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy, which has a multidenominational curriculum and faculty. All these institutions have a religiously mixed student body.

Christian missions provided the first hospitals to care for the indigenous population. The Catholic Church has established approximately 50 rural hospitals and clinics across the country, which constitute one half of all church-run hospitals. The Catholic Church increasingly is maintaining these institutions because of the Government's increasing inability to provide essential social services.

Three Americans who reportedly were missionaries were detained and charged with illegal possession of weapons in March 1999. They were not engaged in missionary activity in the country, and there were no indications that their religious beliefs were a factor in the case.

There was no change in the status of respect or religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion or minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Generally there are amicable relations between the various religious communities. The Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious communities are relatively small and generally not in competition with Christian denominations for converts. Catholic Church officials say they welcome interfaith dialog with Muslims, but believe some of the evangelical churches are hostile to Islam.

There are at least four umbrella religious organizations primarily focused on interdenominational dialog among Christians, and some intrareligious activities. However, Muslims are not represented in any of these organizations and there is no vehicle for formal Christian-Muslim dialog. Muslims have complained of discrimination by private employers who refuse to allow them sufficient time to worship at their mosques on Fridays. Muslims also protested a decision by the Government in late 1996 to cease abiding by Halal practices at some government-owned abattoirs for beef.

The Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) is an umbrella organization of all non-Catholic Christian missionary churches. It maintains a secretariat in Harare, conducts development programs, has a Justice and Peace Desk, and collaborates with the much older Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe. The Catholic Church has observer status within the ZCC and relations generally are cooperative. The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference is currently deliberating over whether to seek membership in the ZCC. Some members of the Christian community are hesitant to support Catholic membership in the ZCC because of memories of the inability of religious leaders to work together during the liberation-war era and fear a repeat of that experience. The ZCC also has worked with other church groups and civil society organizations on social issues. The ZCC initially provided a secretariat for the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a respected nongovernmental organization working to create a new Zimbabwean constitution. After about a 2-year collaboration, the ZCC withdrew from the NCA over political direction and leadership style differences, although individual churches subsequently rejoined. The ZCC is generally seen as supportive of President Mugabe and unwilling to criticize the President or his government.

The Heads of Denominations (HOD) is a pragmatic association of Catholic and other Christian denominations that has no spiritual or theological emphasis. It was created to enable collaboration among Christian groups and the Government in the running of religious schools and hospitals. The HOD provides a vehicle for Christian churches to speak to the Government with a common voice on policy issues and includes the Catholic Church, which runs a significant number of the rural hospitals and schools in the country. The HOD has a loose structure and no office. At present, the HOD's secretarial support is provided by the General Secretariat of the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference (ZCBC) and its Secretary General holds the same position in the ZCBC. The education secretaries of the various churches work together under the HOD, as does the religious advisory board to the ZBC. This broad grouping of churches under the HOD also collaborates on a wide range of social issues including HIV/AIDS education, and, in conjunction with the ZCC, the Christian churches have addressed the declining economic conditions that affect their members across the country. In 1996 the HOD issued a joint statement calling for HIV/AIDS to be treated as a moral issue. In addition the Catholic Church and other religious and lay persons run a center for HIV-infected persons called Mashambanzou.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ) is another umbrella organization for loosely affiliated evangelical churches that have come into being since 1980. The fellowship has observer status with the HOD, but does not work closely with either the ZCC or Catholic Church. However, the evangelical and Catholic churches do collaborate in the broadcasting of religious programs.

Fambidzano, which means "walking together,"is a relatively new grouping of indigenous African churches. A South African Dutch Reformed Church theologian and social anthropologist, Inus Daneel, who has researched these churches in South Africa and Zimbabwe, founded the organization in the mid-1970's. Fambidzano was created to give the leaders of these churches more theological and biblical education, according to Daneel. There is little dialog between Fambidzano and the Catholic Church. However, the two organizations are discussing the need to work with the indigenous churches to which many persons are turning because of their emphasis on physical healing and spiritual salvation.

Zinatha is the closest thing to an organized representative body for traditional African religion. The head of this organization is a university professor and vocal Anglican who is working to increase intrareligious dialog between Zinatha and mainstream Christian churches.

One area of ecumenical collaboration has been translation of the Bible into the majority language, Shona. For the past 12 years several priests and ministers have worked on this project which they hope to complete by the year 2000.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy supports religious as well as other constitutionally protected freedoms through demarches to the Government, nondenominational financial support for community development projects (which often are associated with religious institutions), and regular dialog with and support for civil society organizations that advocate and monitor respect for human rights, including religious freedom.

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Revised last: 10-09-1999