By Peta Thornycroft, Harare and Aislinn Laing in Johannesburg in The Daily Telegraph
Tens of thousands of Zimbabwe's Anglicans are being forced to worship in pubs, tents and private schools while their churches stand empty, shuttered by a controversial bishop loyal to President Robert Mugabe.
About 40 per cent of the country's Anglican churches are now in the hands of Nolbert Kunonga, who was unfrocked as Bishop of Harare in 2007 after he split from the Anglican province of Central Africa in protest at the introduction of homosexual priests.
When worshippers chose to follow the official church's newly-appointed Bishop of Harare, Chad Gandiya, they were chased out of Harare's cathedral and tear-gassed by police.
Many churches are now only unlocked for services for a handful of stalwarts of Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. Followers of Mr Kunonga have torn down the cathedral's colonial artefacts, broken up pews bearing memorial plaques, taken over church buildings including a ten-storey city centre office block and rented out the Bishop's residence.
Mr Kunonga, who swore Mr Mugabe into office in June 2008, was given a white-owned farm north of Harare following the land seizures in 2000.
Anglican bishops are now awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court which they hope will restore church property. For now, they are leading services in any facility open to them.
Last Sunday, 150 worshippers packed into the Stewards lounge of the Mashonaland Turf Club above Zimbabwe's only racecourse. They took communion among the bar stools and sang hymns in the majority Shona language accompanied by drums.
One of the lay preachers, Mary Nyandoro, told the congregation: "God expects us to live a full life regardless of what we are going through, like worshipping in a pub. We built a house in which to worship but must now pray here."
In central Harare, 27 Zanu-PF supporters worshipped in the 1,000-seater St Mary and All Saints Cathedral and sang, unaccompanied, "Onward Christian soldiers" in English.
Bishop Gandiya said 30 churches in Harare alone were now out of bounds to his flock, including those with large congregations in the high-density suburbs. "These congregations are so determined to continue worshipping within the Anglican community that they have all found alternative places," he said.
Julius Makoni, Bishop of the Manicaland diocese in eastern Zimbabwe, said Mr Kunonga has also taken over St John's Cathedral in provincial capital, Mutare. "We worship in the Mutare Sports Club," Bishop Makoni said.
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