HARARE, Zimbabwe — Religion, like politics, is often a dangerous business in this country.
As President Robert Mugabe, 87, pushes for an election this year, the harassment of independent churches seen as hostile to his government has intensified.
Truncheon-wielding riot police officers stormed a Nazarene church here in the capital last month to break up a gathering called to pray for peace. Days later, the authorities in Lupane arrested a Roman Catholic priest leading a memorial service for civilians massacred in the early years of Mr. Mugabe’s decades in power.
Mr. Mugabe, a Roman Catholic, recently denounced black bishops in established churches as pawns of whites and the West, singling out for special opprobrium Catholic bishops who have “a nauseating habit of unnecessarily attacking his person,” the state-controlled Herald newspaper reported.
But it is leaders of the Anglican Church, one of the country’s major denominations, who have lately faced the most sustained pressure. Nolbert Kunonga, an excommunicated Anglican bishop and staunch Mugabe ally, has escalated a drive to control thousands of Anglican churches, schools and properties across Zimbabwe and southern Africa.
“The throne is here,” declared Mr. Kunonga, who has held onto his bishopric here in the sprawling diocese of Harare through courts widely seen as partisan to Mr. Mugabe. He has also been backed by a police force answerable to the president, whom Mr. Kunonga describes as “an angel.”
Chad Gandiya, who was selected by the Anglican hierarchy in central Africa to replace Mr. Kunonga as bishop of Harare, said he was baffled by the support for Mr. Kunonga from state security services since the church that Bishop Gandiya leads is apolitical: “It’s not Kunonga we find at the church gates, it’s the police. It’s not Kunonga who drives us out, who throws tear gas at us, it’s the police. When we ask them why, they say they’re following orders.”
Anglican leaders here who have refused to submit to Mr. Kunonga’s authority say they have been subjected to death threats, spied on by state agents and blocked from worshiping in their churches or burying the dead in Anglican cemeteries.
Godfrey Tawonezvi, bishop of Masvingo, described a visit from two men, who told him that Mr. Kunonga had instructed them to “eliminate” the five bishops who stood in the way of his controlling the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. “They had all our phone numbers, our home addresses,” Mr. Tawonezvi recalled.
Julius Makoni, the bishop of Manicaland, another of the five, said in an interview, “We’re all being followed.”
Anglican leaders also suspect Kunonga loyalists of involvement in the unsolved murder of Jessica Mandeya, a lay leader of a rural parish in Mashonaland East who had refused to join the Kunonga faction. A grandmother in her 80s, she was raped, mutilated and strangled in February.
“It’s very painful for me,” said Bishop Gandiya. “In one sense, she was killed for me because she insisted on remaining in our church.”
Mrs. Mandeya had ministered to a congregation that met in a one-room church claimed by the Kunonga faction, and the police raised the possibility that her murder was related to the split in the church.
“She stood her ground,” said a family member who pleaded not to be named, fearing for his own life.
In a three-hour interview in his office, Mr. Kunonga, a portly man with a gravelly voice, scoffed at the idea that he or his allies had sought to have anyone killed. In fact, if he had wanted anyone killed, he said, it would have been Bishop Gandiya, his rival as the legitimate bishop of Harare.
But there was no need for violence, Mr. Kunonga said, because he was already winning the legal battle to control church properties.
“You must have a very good reason to kill people,” he said. “Being a political scientist, I know who to eliminate if I wanted to physically, and to make it effective. I’m a strategist.”
Mr. Kunonga added, “If I want to pick on people to kill, Gandiya would not survive here.” As for allegations that he and his men were involved in Mrs. Mandeya’s killing, Mr. Kunonga retorted, “What would an illiterate 89-year-old woman do to me to deserve death or assassination?”
Mr. Kunonga’s aim, he and his adviser, the Rev. Admire Chisango, said, is for their breakaway Anglican church to control about 3,000 churches, schools, hospitals and other properties in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi — a treasure accumulated since Anglican missionaries first arrived in what is now Zimbabwe during the 19th century.
One of Mr. Kunonga’s bishops, accompanied by the police, went to the Daramombe mission in Masvingo Province last month and asserted Mr. Kunonga’s authority, threatening to fire those who did not submit, Bishop Tawonezvi told his fellow bishops in an April 30 e-mail. The police repeatedly returned to the mission, questioning the priests.
“Kunonga wants to invade Daramombe mission,” Mr. Tawonezvi wrote. “In the name of God I say NO!”
Like Mr. Mugabe, who encouraged the violent confiscation of white-owned commercial farms, Mr. Kunonga casts himself as a nationalist leader who is Africanizing a church associated with British colonialism.
Mr. Kunonga, who earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from Northwestern University and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary outside Chicago, says that his success in controlling church properties is due to the persuasiveness of his legal arguments in court, not Mr. Mugabe’s influence.
“I’m superior intellectually and from a legal point of view,” he said. “I’m very superior to them.”
He vociferously supports Mr. Mugabe, and like many loyalists, he has been richly rewarded. The ZANU-PF government bestowed on him a prized commercial farm confiscated from white owners. Mr. Kunonga argued that his forebears had lived on that very spot for centuries and that he was just repossessing what was rightfully his.
“Politics can only help us take what we cannot take by ourselves,” he said. “That’s what Mugabe did. That’s why he’s so dear.”
Mr. Kunonga often echoes Mr. Mugabe’s favorite themes, including the president’s loathing for homosexuality. This issue provided Mr. Kunonga’s rationale for withdrawing from the mainline Anglican church in 2007.
He claimed homosexual priests and congregants had gained influence in the church, though mainline church leaders here, as a matter of policy, do not conduct same-sex marriages or ordain gay priests. Bishops in the mainline church saw Mr. Kunonga’s move as a power grab.
As Zimbabwe’s economy spiraled downward in 2008 — with millions hungry, thousands dying of cholera and deadly political violence against Mr. Mugabe’s opponents — riot police officers drove Anglican parishioners from the churches. In an October 2008 letter to the police commissioner, included in a dossier compiled by the mainline church, Mr. Kunonga listed parishes that needed “monitoring.”
“We support the ruling party and we shall keep praying for peace and sanity under the leadership of President Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe,” Mr. Kunonga wrote the police commissioner.
Most Anglicans in Harare have remained in congregations under Bishop Gandiya and the global Anglican Communion. They have been barred from worshiping in Anglican churches, gathering instead in rented churches and schools, open fields, even cemeteries. The police have interpreted court rulings as giving the Kunonga faction control of church properties.
The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, who leads the Anglican Communion, wrote Mr. Mugabe this year, beseeching him to stop “the continuing bullying, harassment and persecution” of Anglicans in Zimbabwe — but received no reply, the archbishop’s press secretary said.
One recent Sunday morning, the magnificent Anglican Cathedral in downtown Harare, once thronged by thousands of congregants, was mostly empty. Mr. Kunonga sat among a smattering of parishioners.
Not far away, a thousand Anglicans packed a plain rented church not under his authority. Beneath bare light bulbs dangling from unfinished rafters, they joyously danced and sang to the beat of drums and listened raptly to their charismatic young priest, Barnabas Munzwandi.
As the priest’s voice wafted into the yard outside where the overflow crowd sat on the grass, Victoria Ngwere, a 38-year-old housewife, explained that she had pushed her son, Raymond, miles in his wheelchair to get to services rather than attend a Kunonga church nearer her home.
“Here I can feel free,” she said.