The team of international church communicators, detained by Zimbabwean police while visiting Lutheran relief projects, left Zimbabwe on Wednesday, January 29. They are continuing the second part of their visitation program, which will take them to relief and development programs and projects of the Evangelical Lutheran Development Program/Lutheran World Service. They will also meet with Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi Bishop Dr Joseph Bvumbwe.
The group, travelling under the auspices of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), was searched by police on Friday evening, January 24, after they had checked into a hotel in the mining town of Zvishavane, approximately 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of the Zimbabwean capital of Harare.
The five communicators from Kenya, Finland, the United States of America and Germany were, according to the state-controlled Zimbabwean newspaper the "Sunday Mail", "suspected of being journalists sent into the country to secretly write stories aimed at tarnishing the image of the government."
Under present Zimbabwean law it is an offence punishable by two years in prison to work as a journalist without state permission, but this legislation applies neither to churches and church organizations nor to church communicators. The LWF had officially registered the group under the latter category.
Even before any court hearing came to be, the local magistrate on Tuesday, January 28, dismissed all accusations against the five detainees. The local journalist who had been traveling with the group was also released. The police then escorted the group back to Harare where its members were met by the Zimbabwean immigration authorities. They then resumed their trip on their pre-scheduled flight to Malawi.
According to information received at LWF headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday, January 29, the group was not deported, but authorization for its members to remain in the country was simply canceled.
The trip was organized by the LWF in preparation for its upcoming Tenth Assembly that will take place in Winnipeg, Canada, July 21-31, under the theme "For the Healing of the World." The organizers intended to draw attention to issues related to HIV/AIDS and food shortages in southern Africa, and the need for global support for the ongoing relief and development work in the region.
"It is our role as an international church organization to raise awareness of humanitarian need in areas that tend to be forgotten leading to chronic under-funding. Visitation programs are an important factor in securing life-saving funds," said LWF General Secretary, Rev. Dr Ishmael Noko.
By Albert H. Lee