Stanely Mushava : Features Correspondent
Demolition has lately been the default mode of Harare City Council machinery. This time churches are the local authority’s next target. Council last week announced it was razing to dust church buildings which encroach on to its land if worshippers did not heed a 48-hour ultimatum to pull down their illegal structures.Harare City director of works Phillip Pfukwa announced the measure in reference to more than 100 churches in the capital that are occupying land without the blessing of the city fathers.
A local daily reported that at least 68 churches in Dzivarasekwa, 27 in Kuwadzana and several more in Waterfalls could be craned down if council makes good its ultimatum.
While council demolishes just about any form of structure on the pretext of restoring order, and in the churches’ case, maintaining the peace, critics fault this approach as reactive rather than proactive.
A question is often asked where the council would be hibernating when people, some of them victims of shady co-operatives, are investing thousands in the structures and why it is suddenly propelled into action when the structures are already standing and functional.
In Bindura, for example, the Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University, one of the enterprising Christian initiatives in higher education, is existing in the shadow of bulldozers after the original owner of the land recently obtained a demolition order from the courts.
The university, owned by Zimbabwe Assemblies of God in Africa (Zaoga) Forward in Faith, is a victim of double allocation, a blunder attributable to the Bindura town authority.
Again, the question comes up why someone would wait for a whole university to be raised from the ground to functionality before coming forward to contest its existence.
In some cases, though, churches have commercialised their structures or incorporated services for which they are not licensed.
Last week, Harare City sent a singularly cold message by razing down a structure of Marshville College, a secondary school which a Glen Norah A branch of Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) in Zimbabwe was running.
Proprietors are desperate as students they had enrolled are currently stranded, and council maintains that churches are not an exception where city by-laws are concerned.
Harare City Council spokesperson Michael Chideme told Herald Review that the demolitions were irreversible as the concerned churches’ operations amounted to lawlessness.
“What the churches are doing is ungodly in the first place. It is ungodly to steal land and build illegal structures,” Chideme said.
“Churches need to respect the city’s by-laws. We allocate church stands to those who apply without discrimination so they should come forward and apply,” he said.
However, some church leaders have complained that as small “indigenous” denominations, they do not have the wherewithal to purchase council stands.
“That does not hold up because we have indigenous churches such as AFM in Zimbabwe and Zaoga who have legally acquired land for their operations across the country,” countered Chideme.
He maintained that it was not too much for council to insist that churches be allocated land in model buildings that are sound-proof.
He denied the charge that the city fathers are reactive, thereby unnecessarily costing families and organisations their lifetime investments.
“We warn people from the beginning that they are contravening the law. We have a building inspectorate which is always on the ground to alert people to these issues,” he said.
Chideme slammed concerned churches for “disturbing the peace and building substandard structures which deface council land”. He also warned churches against having other ideas when they have been allocated land specifically for church activities.
“A church should remain a church. It should not be a business. Land uses must be adhered to,” he said.
Church demolitions are not peculiar to Harare. Regions where Christianity is a minority faith premise demolitions on a legal case, but Christians complain that they are victims of prejudice and persecution. Human Rights Watch’s 2016 report documents the demolition of entire churches and Christian symbols such as crosses in Zhejiang Province, considered the heartland of Chinese Christianity.
While local authorities in the region maintain that they are only taking down illegal structures, Christianity advocates claim the demolitions are aimed at reducing the prominence of Christianity in the region. Pastor Simba Manyika of Christ Life Church in Epworth said there was need for Harare City to take a moderate approach in regularising the inconsistencies.
“Church leaders and members can actually interpret demolitions as persecution, although some of them could have avoided this by following proper channels,” Pastor Manyika said.
“But that is the power of religious conviction, which, in other circles, may be greater than one’s political affiliation. There are some who decide to defend their faith at the physical level, characterising themselves as the early apostles who were persecuted for the gospel,” he said, citing the example of an apostolic sect in Budiriro which had a bloody clash with law enforcement agencies in 2014.
“It is not a Christian principle to defy the laws of the land. The scriptures actually say, ‘Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God,’” Pastor Manyika said.
“Another passage says to, ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right,’” he added.
“It is in power of the city fathers to institute the rule of law and maintain order. We as responsible citizens, including the church, have a duty to uphold the rules,” he said.
Pastor Manyika, however, maintained that council, as the body responsible for the city, has a mandate to enhance the lives of the people.
“This should include creating an environment that facilitates the achievement of full potential for every interested stakeholder, inclusive of the church. This means creating equal opportunities for all churches with respect to their sizes and financial abilities, thus making it easy and affordable for churches to legally acquire stands,” Pastor Manyika said.
“For this predicament that these churches are facing, I implore the council to exercise leniency and, if possible, extend the period to vacate the places. Both parties must amicably address the issue so as to safeguard the interests of both constituencies,” he said.
“Council has to take into consideration the community role that the church plays. The churches must also do their best to follow the proper channels and act professionally to avoid putting the name of the Lord in contempt,” he added.
Christian commentator, Talent Mbedzi, also called for a compromise position between the municipal authority and the churches to stall avoidable losses.
“I think it is bad stewardship to use God’s resources, that is, tithes and contributions, to play lotto, that is, take uncalculated risks of binding implications,” Mbedzi said.
“I would rather build a temporary structure like a shade if no concrete deal or title deeds to the land has been acquired,” he said.
“However, the city council must abide by the law if it wants people to take it seriously. They cannot give someone land today and come and destroy their property tomorrow as has been previously reported. That is the height of lawlessness and it sends the wrong message,” Mbedzi added.
Mbedzi said the matter could not be put down in black and white as people sometimes fell prey to unscrupulous estate agents and co-operatives: “This calls for both pragmatism and discernment on the part of church leaders,” he said.
“I think for stands that were properly allocated, the city council must renegotiate with churches and offer them alternatives and compensation than to just destroy their properties. Both sides need to own up to their errors and that extends to national culture,” Mbedzi said.
Concerned Christian Leaders Network (CCLN) Zimbabwe coordinator Bishop Joshua Chiweda was rather philosophical on the matter. The bishop said any administrative measure must comply with the rules and principles of natural justice.
“These include the reasonableness of the administrative measures, in this case the intended demolition by council of structures used by the church. Further, it is required that where notice is given, it should be a reasonable and adequate notice in the circumstances. Forty-eight hours is patently inadequate and unreasonable,” Bishop Chiweda said.
He said administrative justice demands fairness and conscience but that it was not an inadequate prism from which to view the demolitions.
“One needs to consider also the kingdom principles that apply to the exercise of power, public or private. These include righteousness, justice, truth and love,” Bishop Chiweda said.
“Naturally, one cannot fault council for insisting that use of land within its jurisdiction should be preceded by prior approval. Obviously, no one should support unplanned development, particularly in urban centres that receive services aligned to meticulous planning and development,” the bishop observed.
“However, competing with the council’s righteous cause is the fact that there has not been quality service delivery from its end. Rampant corruption and other forms of maladministration may have militated against well meaning efforts by churches to have their status regularised or to get timeous approval in the first place to establish and erect centres of worship,” Bishop Chiweda pointed out.
“That does not give churches the right to self-help without following procedures but the need for improvement in the quality of municipal services is obviously pertinent,” he said.
“There cannot be justice without fairness. Churches can still be given notice in writing to have their structures regularised where the option is available, or where they have to vacate, adequate notice equivalent to the period needed to vacate the without suffering irreparable loss.
“Churches are not being asked to vacate premises they have been operating from for a few days, but for years, in most instances. If it took council years to wield the axe, it should be possible for them to give at least three months notice, as is the case with legal tenancy, for example.
“The council’s action in this respect falls short of God’s standards of justice. It is not a given that council consistently and predictably acts against those who do not comply with its stipulated standards on use of its land.
“Here again, council has been found wanting. Instances where council has allowed breaches of its by-laws when it comes to use of city land are replete and self-evident. Council has to this extent compromised itself and seeking to assume a high-handed enforcement of the law in the present circumstances betrays its own past conduct,” the bishop said.
“Individuals and churches requiring land should operate within the confines of the council’s by-laws, without seeking to cut corners or expedite matters outside applicable standards.
“On its part, council must live by the mandate it exists to serve, within the framework of righteousness, justice, truth, and love, standards God expects those wielding power in any capacity to observe,” he said.
On the whole, the council’s concerns are not in question, but its reactive approach to enforcement, double standards and heavy-handedness are.
Demolitions are an extreme step which should only be considered in the event that every alternative which can stall irreparable loss has failed, at least considering churches’ consistent record as unofficial development partners of the state and local authorities in Zimbabwe.