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Zimbabwe Church Protests Clampdown on Relief Agencies

The director of the justice and peace department of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference made a statement in a magazine this month in response to a government bill to restrict the work of
( [email protected] ) Oct 22, 2004 05:25 PM EDT

The director of the justice and peace department of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference has told churches to take action to ensure aid is delivered to Zimbabweans. According to a report by the Council for World Missions, Neville Gabriel made a statement in Challenge church magazine this month in response to a government bill to restrict the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

"If the bill is enacted, the poor will be condemned to an even more hopeless fate," Gabriel said in the statement. "Church communities need to urgently take concerted action at the highest levels to ensure that international humanitarian assistance is delivered to those who need it."

The director added that churches must act so that Zimbabwean civil society organizations are free to work, that political transformation is urged and repression is stopped. "Our faith in Jesus Christ and identification with the suffering body of Christ in Zimbabwe demands no less."

The NGO Bill, one of four controversial bills being tabled in parliament, seeks to repeal the Private Voluntary Organizations Act and establish new legislation that analysts have condemned as "patently unconstitutional, undemocratic and undesirable in a democratic country."

According to the Zimbabwe Independent news agency, the Bill would grant the government extended powers to close down NGOs perceived to be critical of its policies by imposing “restrictive registration formalities.” NGOs dealing with human rights and governance would be denied access to foreign financial assistance in a bid to reduce their contacts with international organizations.

The agency reported that NGOs found in breach of these regulations would be liable to criminal prosecution.

Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional law expert at the University of Zimbabwe told the Independent that the NGO law would criminalize democratic civil society activities.

"The proposed NGO law will have the effect of criminalizing civil society organizations, especially those working in the field of human rights and governance by making them liable to prosecution for legitimate and peaceful activities of promoting human rights in Zimbabwe," Madhuku said.

He added, "There is not much you can gain from legal challenges given that the government has already shown it will not obey court rulings that do not fit into its program."

Meanwhile, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) has stated that the NGO Bill and three other new Bills expected to be pushed through parliament would effectively put the country under undeclared martial rule ahead of the critical general election.