CESNUR - center for studies on new religions
Department Seal 2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000


The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, a law that reportedly criminalizes both purporting to practice witchcraft and accusing persons of practicing witchcraft reportedly was viewed as restrictive by some practitioners of indigenous religions. There is no state religion. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There are generally amicable relations between the various religious communities. The Government and the religious community in the country historically have had good relations.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal /Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, a law that reportedly criminalizes both purporting to practice witchcraft and accusing persons of practicing witchcraft reportedly was viewed as restrictive by some practitioners of indigenous religions. There is no state religion. The Government generally recognizes all religions. The Government does not require religious institutions to be registered. However, approximately 3 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 that run 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.

Religious Demography

There is no state religion, but between 60 and 70 percent of an estimated population of 13 million belong to the mainstream Christian denominations, with between 2-3 million identifying themselves as Roman Catholic. However, there are no reliable statistics on the exact number of Christian churches or religious movements in the country. There is also a small Muslim population in the country, estimated at less than 1 percent. The evangelical denominations, mostly Pentecostal churches, are the fastest growing congregation in the country. They appeal to large numbers of disillusioned members from the established churches who reportedly are attracted by these church leaders' promises of miracles and messages of hope at a time of social and economic stress. 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, Buddhists, 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.

Due to its colonial and apartheid-like history, the vast majority of the country's black population was prevented from attending government schools, which were restricted to white students, and Christian mission schools taught the few blacks who could claim any formal education at all. Consequently, the vast majority of the country's liberation war leadership, who later became the current Government's senior officials, were trained by Christian educators.

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 Eastern 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 insular. However, in recent years, the Islamic community has begun proselytizing among the majority black 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 founders 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). Traditional African religions remain deeply rooted and are expected to grow as people seek spiritual comfort from the country's economic hardships and the scourge of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

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. The Christian schools constitute one third of the total number of the schools in the country with the Catholic Church having the majority. Due to inadequate resources, the Government has returned several former church schools, which it had taken over at independence, to the respective churches in the last few years. 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 Catholic University and Arrupe College. There is one Methodist institution in Mutare, the Africa University, and a Seventh-Day Adventist college in Matebeleland. 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. In addition, there are some non-degree bearing institutions such as teacher training colleges that also focus on religious studies.

Christian missions provided the first hospitals to care for black citizens. Presently there are 123 hospitals and clinics in the country that fall under the Zimbabwe Association of Christian Hospitals, an association that consists of largely mainstream churches. The individual churches are the predominant source of funding for maintaining these hospitals because of the Government's increasing inability to provide essential services. The Government does provide small subsidies to facilitate the hospitals' functions, but these make up only a small percentage of the operating budgets.

Governmental Restrictions in Religious Freedom

Witchcraft--widely understood to encompass attempts to harm others not only by magic but also by covert means of established efficacy such as poisons--traditionally has been a common explanation for diseases of which the causes were unknown. Although traditional indigenous religions generally include or accommodate belief in the efficacy of witchcraft, they generally approve of harmful witchcraft only for defensive or retaliatory purposes and purport to offer protection against it. In recent years, interest in healing through traditional religion and through prayer reportedly has increased as HIV/AIDS has infected an estimated one-quarter of the adult population, and affordable science-based medicines effective in treating HIV/AIDS have remained unavailable.

The 1890 Witchcraft Suppression Act (WSA) reportedly criminalizes purporting to practice witchcraft, accusing persons of practicing witchcraft, hunting witches, and soliciting persons to name witches; penalties reportedly include imprisonment for as much as 7 years. The law reportedly defines witchcraft as the practice of sorcery, without reference to the consequences intended by the practitioner. Since 1997 the Zimbabwe National African Traditional Healers' Association has proposed amendments to the 1890 law that would redefine witchcraft in terms of intent to cause harm including illness, injury, or death. However, mainstream Christian churches reportedly have opposed such legislation. Human rights groups also generally supported the existing WSA; the Act has been used since independence primarily to protect people, primarily women, who have been accused falsely of causing harm to people or crops in rural areas where traditional religious practices are strong.

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

President Mugabe has expressed skepticism about the increasing membership in evangelical and indigenous churches and has indicated that he believes they could be subversive.

The Government maintains a monopoly on television broadcasting (despite some restricted leased broadcast time to one other broadcaster) 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 shown on ZBC. The Government generally follows the recommendations of the Religious Advisory Board, an umbrella grouping of Christian denominations, on appropriate religious material to broadcast. Muslims, who are not represented on the board, approached the advisory board about obtaining access to the airwaves. The Roman Catholic chairman of the board is not opposed to recommending that Muslims be given air 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 block. While the ZBC officials with whom the chairman raised this issue in the past had indicated informally that Islamic religious material would be included on ZBC; none has been broadcast to date. The chairman of the Religious Advisory Board believes that this is because Muslims represent too small a percentage of society to take up minimal religious airtime or to merit membership on the advisory board.

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

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of 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

There are generally amicable relations among 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. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) is an umbrella organization of all non-Catholic ecumenical Christian missionary churches, but does not include evangelical organizations. 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 (CCJP). The Catholic Church has observer status within the ZCC and relations generally are cooperative. The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference currently is deliberating over whether to seek membership in the ZCC. Some members of the Christian community are hesitant to support Catholics joining 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 formed to create a new 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 generally is seen as supportive of President Mugabe and unwilling to criticize the President or his Government. However, a rift between the ZCC and the Government emerged when the ZCC and NCA tried to bring together the different parties working on election issues and the Government refused to participate, branding the ZCC as the enemy.

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 collaborate 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 affecting their members across the country. In 1999 HOD issued a joint statement calling for HIV/AIDS to be treated as a moral issue. The HOD continues to deliberate over the role religious