The Archbishop of Canterbury has been warned by senior church leaders that he risks handing a propaganda coup to President Robert Mugabe by seeking to meet the Zimbabwean dictator on Sunday. Senior church leaders are concerned that the 87-year-old leader could use photographs of himself admonishing Dr Rowan Williams to his political advantage.
There are also growing fears that the archbishop’s visit to the country could worsen the plight of Anglicans, who have seen their priests arrested, beaten and forced from their homes in a dispute with a breakaway faction backed by Mr Mugabe.
The visit, which begins on Sunday, is regarded as one of the most critical and diplomatically sensitive trips of Dr Williams’ time in office. He is expecting to meet Mr Mugabe on Monday and has expressed his determination to challenge him over the persecution of the Church in Zimbabwe.
However, the Rt Rev Sebastian Bakare, the former Bishop of Manicaland, urged Dr Williams to reconsider asking for time with the dictator.
“For me, that meeting is a waste of time because Mugabe is making his position very clear and we as a church should not go and kneel before him,” he said.
The British government has already distanced itself from Dr Williams’ visit, stressing he is making it in a pastoral capacity rather than a political one.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “He is not a representative of the government and his proposed meeting with Mugabe in no way reflects a change of government policy.”
The Rt Rev James Langstaff, the Bishop of Rochester which is twinned with the diocese of Harare, said there was a danger that a summit between the two leaders could backfire, but that this should not prevent it taking place.
“There is a risk that pictures of the archbishop shaking his hand will be used as proganda, but sometimes we have to take risks as Christians,” he said.
“If there’s an opportunity for him to make clear to Mugabe the impact the persecution is having on the Church, that has to be worth taking.”
If the president agrees to the meeting – which on Saturday was still unconfirmed – the archbishop will be the first British dignitary to visit him in Zimbabwe since Baroness Amos saw him in 2001.
A senior aide to Dr Williams said the archbishop is fully aware of the extremely sensitive nature of his visit and is agonising over whether he would shake the president’s hand. “The stakes are very high. This is not a game,” he said.
“We have a strategy in place. The main message the archbishop wants to convey is that the Church is in solidarity with the Anglicans in Zimbabwe who are going through an extremely difficult time.”
In recent months, worshippers have been violently ejected from churches and mission schools by police using tear gas and batons.
Up to 40 per cent of the country’s Anglican churches have been seized by Nolbert Kunonga, the ex-communicated Bishop of Harare who has described Mr Mugabe as a “prophet of God” and denounced Dr Williams for failing to stop the appointment of homosexual bishops.
Bishop Bakare said he does not expect the meeting to be productive, but stressed that the archbishop’s visit was of great symbolic importance.
“For him to come to Zimbabwe at this juncture is a morale boost for people who feel persecuted, sidelined and lonely,” he said.
Dr Williams will arrive in the country today after a visit in Malawi, where he yesterday delivered a thinly veiled attack on the actions of Mr Kunonga.
“This [harmony] will work only if our churches truly are places where all people are honoured and where rivalry and violence are utterly rejected,” he said.
“When a church is enslaved afresh by greed, by regional or ethnic loyalties, by personal ambitions, it needs the wind of the Spirit to purify it.”
The Rt Rev Chad Gandiya, the Bishop of Harare, who was robbed and threatened last month, revealed some Anglicans are afraid the archbishop’s visit could “escalate our suffering”.
However, last night he said that a meeting with Mr Mugabe would given Dr Williams an opportunity to appeal for an end to the persecution.
“We would welcome a meeting and I hope to attend as well. We want to ask for the violence to stop,” he said. “When you talk, there are always possibilities.”
Around 20,000 people are expected to attend a Eucharist service being led by Dr Williams today at Harare’s sports stadium, but there are concerns it could be disrupted by supporters of Zanu PF, Mr Mugabe’s party.
It is also understood that Mr Kunonga has been given permission to hold a demonstration today, which local clergy fear could increase tensions.
The Rev Admire Chisango, a spokesman for the excommunicated bishop, raised the possibility that Dr Williams’ service could be stopped from going ahead.
“If the police see fit to bar it then they will be acting within the law,” he said.
“The bishop legally and constitutionally of the Diocese of Harare is Bishop Kunonga and Rowan Williams doesn’t have any invitation according to the order of the courts of Zimbabwe.”