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WCC 8th Assembly


The 8th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) held particular significance in that it took place in 1998, the 50th year after the formation of the ecumenical world body. The year 1998 was also the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

GALZ first heard that 8th assembly would be hosted by the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) when, in May 1996, it received a letter from Jonah Gokova of the Ecumenical Support Services (ESS), inviting GALZ to a ZCC seminar on the topic of homosexuality. At first astonished to be approached by a body well known for its anti-gay stance, GALZ quickly learnt that the single reason for the invitation was to ensure that this prestigious event did indeed come to Zimbabwe.

Following the international publicity surrounding the Zimbabwe government’s illegal ban on GALZ from participating at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1995 (which it was about to try and repeat in July 1996), gay-affirmative churches throughout the world had started to express concern to the WCC headquarters in Geneva that the Zimbabwean government might deny their members visas, harass and intimidate them and interfere with the proceedings and display of materials at the assembly.

The WCC had then approached ZCC and asked them to provide assurances that ZCC was in contact with GALZ and that the business of the assembly would not be interfered with by the Zimbabwean State.

Hopeful that some kind of dialogue might soften ZCC’s official hard line approach to homosexuality, GALZ attended three meetings called by ZCC members. It was clear from all of them that ZCC was in no position to compromise and was making contact with GALZ only under pressure from WCC. In June 1996, ZCC President, Reverend Jonathan Siyachitema, reaffirmed his organisation’s hostility to homosexuality in a press article entitled ‘Churches Against Homosexuals at World Conference’. He said that ZCC backed President Mugabe’s anti-homosexual stance.

GALZ learnt around this time that a secret memorandum of understanding had been signed between WCC, ZCC and the Zimbabwean government stating that the government would not interfere in any way with the proceedings of the upcoming assembly.

Starting in February 1997, representatives from WCC headquarters in Geneva started to pay regular visits to GALZ. They encouraged the association to apply to participate both in the human rights and cultural forum to surround the assembly (called Padare), and in the ‘UN Decade Festival for Women’ which was to precede it.

One visitor, Reverend Kobia of the WCC Justice, Peace and Creation Department. informed GALZ that, at a meeting of FOCCESA in Malawi, the Head of the Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Department of ZCC had attempted to get FOCCESA to endorse the anti-gay position of ZCC. The attempt apparently failed after the Anglican Archbishop in Botswana related the tragic story of a young man committing suicide because the church had spurned him on account of his homosexuality. Kobia also reported that some Methodist representatives at the meeting had threatened to remove GALZ physically should the organisation try to take part in the assembly.

In September 1997, WCC invited two GALZ representatives, Tina Machida and Oliver Phillips, to a meeting in Geneva. It was clear that, although the WCC organisers were serious about GALZ’s involvement in the forthcoming assembly, the issue of sexuality (in particular homosexuality) was causing deep divisions among WCC members and WCC was anxious not to allow this to cause a split in the world body. The Orthodox churches boycotted all sessions of the Geneva meeting relating to homosexuality and issued a communiqué protesting the use of ‘inclusive language’. They threatened to boycott certain sessions of the 8th assembly which, in the end, they did.

In February 1998, GALZ completed the application form to participate at Padare and discovered that, because it was not linked to any church, an endorsement was needed from a church-related body. GALZ naturally approached ESS who agreed to provide the endorsement but GALZ then received word that WCC required endorsement from a bona fide church body either in Zimbabwe or in South Africa. The reasoning was that ESS was itself controversial in Zimbabwe and if a church in America or Europe were to provide the endorsement, this would play straight into the hands of critics claiming that homosexuality is a foreign perversion being forced on Africans by outsiders.

GALZ agreed and tried, without success, to obtain an endorsement from a South African church body. There was obviously no possibility of GALZ receiving endorsement from a Zimbabwean church and this was confirmed by a WCC representative who had met with nearly every ZCC member and raised the issue with them.

Meanwhile, GALZ decided to continue dialogue with local churches by organising, under the umbrella of ESS, a series of seminars on gender and sexuality. Four were planned but attendance at the third was so poor that the final meeting was cancelled. Although numerous churches agreed to send delegates, most did not attend as it became clear that the seminars were not the initiative of ESS but of GALZ. At the start of the second seminar, a member of the Salvation Army turned away delegates from the door informing them that the seminar was a thinly disguised GALZ event.

Starting with reports on a speech by Mugabe at a funeral in the first quarter of 1998, the government-controlled media started a blitz on GALZ’s involvement with the upcoming assembly. Homophobic church leaders were given free reign to condemn homosexuals and the papers constantly reported on cases of sodomy being brought before the courts, many of them to do with the sexual abuse of children.

The media frenzy was fuelled by the scandal surrounding the case of the first President of Zimbabwe, Reverend Canaan Banana, who was on trial for 8 counts of sodomy, the 16 charges of sodomy brought against popular faith healer, Boniface Muponda, and the charge of sodomy brought against GALZ Director, Keith Goddard, who was alleged to have raped a man three times in one night, threatening him with a brightly coloured water pistol.

An undercover journalist from The Sunday Mail joined GALZ in the hope of uncovering some sex scandal. He found nothing but the paper went ahead and published an article claiming that GALZ was running a brothel for foreign homosexual clients from an upstairs bedroom .The GALZ Centre is a single-story building.

Following up on the endorsement, GALZ had one more route to explore. In June 1998, the association had joined an NGO initiative to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. GALZ made the suggestion that the UDHR committee apply to participate in the general assembly to enable GALZ to take part. ZCC was a member of the committee and, although it withdrew after GALZ joined, WCC agreed that membership by ZCC at any point meant that a church endorsement for the UDHR committee was not required.

The committee was divided on the issue but the chairperson, Dr. Reginald Matshaba-Hove, allowed GALZ the entire proceedings of one meeting to explain the importance of the assembly and to answer questions. When put to the vote some delegates abstained but most agreed to provide a platform for GALZ.

As part of the WCC official 8th assembly programme, GALZ organised two panel discussions on gender and sexuality under the name of the UDHR committee: the first involved international visitors who were attending the assembly in support of GALZ; the second involved representatives from local human rights organisations. Despite assurances from the Zimbabwean government that it would not interfere with the proceedings of the assembly, three members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIO) attended the first meeting and took video shots of participants.

In support of GALZ, representatives from the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) in South Africa, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and Amnesty International also attended the assembly and the UDHR committee events.

On 10th December, GALZ joined a Human Rights March organised by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the UDHR committee. Protection for the marchers was sought from the police who refused to provide any because GALZ was involved. Nevertheless, the committee stood by its commitment not to exclude GALZ. The march took place without incident and was surrounded by much international publicity.