21 March 2014

Mozambique: The Bishop Who Smashed Guns At the Altar

Photo: David Rose/Christian Aid
The Tree of Life was made by four Mozambican artists: Cristovao Canhavato (Kester), Hilario Nhatugueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Serafim Maté. It is a product of the Transforming Arms into Tools (TAE) project and is made from decommissioned weapons. - British Museum

The longest-serving Anglican bishop in the world, Bishop Dinis Sengulane of Lebombo, a church diocese which covers southern Mozambique, is to retire after nearly four decades ministry in that country.

Sengulane was consecrated as a bishop soon after Mozambique became independent from Portugal in 1975 and the ruling Frelimo party formed a one-party state. He led his diocese through the 15-year-long civil war which followed independence and played an important role in efforts which eventually brought about an end to the war. He was interviewed in late 2013 by John Allen.

When I first interviewed you in 1976, your predecessor had returned to Portugal and at the age of 30 you had just become the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion. The Frelimo government was closing churches because they thought the Catholic Church in particular was too closely associated with the colonial authorities. What was it like in that situation to become a leader of the Anglicans?

It has been a real blessing to have served in the circumstances in which I have been serving. I consider myself a very blessed person.

On the one hand, I felt the pain of colonialism, and when colonialism fell apart we were not expecting to be put at the same level as the Roman Catholic Church. We knew what it meant to be considered second-class citizens. The colonial government had considered the Anglican Church some kind of enemy or strange entity within society -- or perhaps irrelevant -- so we were not expecting to be considered very important.

What we were not expecting was to be treated as enemies [by the new government]. That was a big surprise for us. So we continued to live under this bad, negative attitude. But I was able to go and visit some of our churches, the churches that were open. It was quite difficult. We had many churches closed, and we had to learn new ways of ministering to people. I would go to their homes - or to graves, as if we were merely commemorating the dead, when actually we were proclaiming life. If anything appeared in the press, it was always to say very negative things about the church.

When we had the problems of drought and war, the church continued to play its pastoral role in trying to minister to those who were in need.

When in 1990 a new constitution was approved - the church was not mentioned as having created many problems [but] there was not a mention of praise for good work done either - it was accepted. The work we had done among the refugees, the victims of the drought and the war, was very much appreciated.

So we saw those people who had closed churches coming back and asking to be received, to be baptised, to be buried in church. And, thank God, the church had not become a kind of opposition, but it was open just to say, "Come back, come and we will receive you." So today we are in a position where there is mutual respect between the Church and State - not only that, but actually trust - and even requests for church intervention in national issues like the consolidation of peace and advice on various other issues.

Take us back to the 1970s and 1980s, and tell us more about the church's experiences of the war between Frelimo [the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique] and Renamo [the Mozambican Resistance Movement].

The church lost about a third of its congregations. They were dismantled. People had to flee to other areas. Some churches were burnt. We lost some of our leaders, including clergy who were killed while travelling.

We were led, though, to play a role with the Council of Churches, and the Anglican Church played a key role in that we said "Let's pray and fast every first Friday of the month." We shared this commitment with other members of the council, and said at least let's pray and work together. We did that, planning Bible studies on peace to be used especially by young people and the Mothers' Union and similar groups in other churches.

While travelling to the different places where we were burying so many people, sometimes we would meet with members of other churches and would be commenting on sermons at funerals. We said, "Why don't we stop the cause of the funerals? Let's be courageous enough to say what is the solution to the problem of war in Mozambique." It was in that context that the synod of the Diocese of Lebombo in 1982 came to the conclusion we should actually share with the government the need for Mozambicans to talk with one another because the country was suffering - schools, hospitals, roads were being destroyed. But we didn't want to do it as Anglicans on our own so we went to the Council of Churches.

It took another two years before we were able to take our message to the government. Only in 1984 were we able to say it openly to the government, but not letting the press know. Members of our congregations knew we were talking with the government about the need for peace but not the content of what we were doing. I would say that while the Roman Catholic Church of that time was writing pastoral letters saying the government should be doing A, B and C to talk, we were going to the government and saying, "Why don't you talk?" So there was a prophetic attitude of the Roman Catholic Church and a pastoral attitude on the part of the Council of Churches, both trying to achieve the same thing.

Finally President [Joachim] Chissano gave us a green light, in the sense of saying, "Whatever you do to achieve peace through dialogue, that's acceptable to us" -- more or less indicating that if you go and speak to the other side, we are not going to consider you as aligning with the enemy.

It was a very brutal war, and the Frelimo government used to call Renamo "armed bandits" yet they let you go and speak to them?

Well it was very brutal, but let me remind you that Renamo was calling Frelimo a marxist government, a marxist group, and I was saying to Renamo, "Can you translate the word marxism into Shangana?" [one of Mozambique's languages]. And Frelimo was saying that Renamo was an agent of apartheid and I was saying to them, "Can you translate the word apartheid into Shangana?" Neither group could do it, they were fighting over concepts from outside - foreign concepts.

Secondly when you look at the guns they were using, AK-47s, Makarovs and so on, all had foreign names. They had come from outside. I would say, "What are you using to kill your enemy?" So really both the concepts they were fighting about and the instruments they were using were foreign to Mozambicans. The only thing which was Mozambican was the killer and the victims. Only Frelimo and Renamo were Mozambican.

So we were saying, why don't you emphasise this thing which is common - our "Mozambiqinity" if you like - and forget about these foreign elements. It was more or less that kind of conversation we had with them until they agreed to meet and talk and now we are enjoying peace.

'Swords to Plowshares'

There was a time during the 1980s when you became known for inviting children to bring their toy guns to church. Tell us what you asked them next.

Well, in the process of bringing the two sides together we also decided to undertake an effort called PPP - Preparing People for Peace - in which we went to every province of the country and said to people, "What do you think might jeopardize peace in the future?" And one lady said "Guns." She said, "We have so many guns in our hands. Both sides have been very generous in dishing out guns just like that, so when peace comes are those guns going to be just left alone?" So I said, "Oh dear. My theological training has not really equipped me to talk about guns, let me talk to the Boss. Can I come back to you tomorrow?"

During the night I spent time praying and then I found that place where it says, "They will turn their swords into ploughshares." The following day I said we are going to ask them to bring their guns, those who have got guns. We will have disarmament from a biblical perspective. We know the United Nations will disarm and the government will disarm but after they finish that, we will ask people to bring in their guns.

People would bring in their guns and the first thing we would do is to cut up the gun, make it unusable. Secondly we would give in exchange for it an instrument of production. Thirdly we would take that gun to a place where it will be made into either an instrument of production or a work of art. We felt there was a need to go into the families. The idea was to disarm the minds and the hands.

We decided to use not only Sunday schools but also church services and that before saying "the Peace of the Lord be with you," we would invite all children to bring their toy guns. We will smash them right there.

You smashed them, with what?

We smashed them with a hammer before we gave the Peace, and then we exchanged them with toys that do not inspire violence.

Arms to Art

The programme is called Turning Swords into Ploughshares. It has collected over 800,000 different items of war equipment and it has got works of art from the Tree of Life in the British Museum in London, to the Throne of Weapons,  to crosses - pectoral crosses - around the necks of so many bishops around the world and many other works of art. We are continuing because unfortunately there are still people who are armed and they need to be disarmed both their hands and their minds.

So it's a programme you started in Mozambique and then exported and found allies abroad?

It has found allies abroad. I think when we talk about too many people who are armed here in South Africa and other parts of the world,we need to learn from that. In the United States…a young man of about 20 years of age, living with his mother in a peaceful village... took guns, killed the mother, went to a school, killed 20 children and six teachers and then killed himself. [The shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.]

The Americans were really shaken by this tragedy, so they invited us just to go and be with them and share with them how we are dealing with sensitizing people to feel that a gun is not something of which you can just say, I want to have it because I like it. It is a bad adviser. To have a gun is just like having a poisonous snake in your house. It will bite you.

Just go back a little bit to the constitution of 1990 and the implications of that - what did it say?

Well, it said other political parties could be formed and that was an opportunity for us to align with the Province's position [under Archbishop Desmond Tutu's leadership] that no Anglican deacon, priest or bishop can be a member of any political party, and other churches came to adopt that position too. So we felt a certain degree of pride in being a member of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, as it was then called, because our position was highly appreciated by others.

And until today no church leader is a member of any political party.which means our that our impartiality is appreciated by both the government and the opposition. They can come to us knowing that we praise them if they do good things but also that we can criticize them, and not because we want to take over power.

So it eased the situation when the ruling party saw you weren't aligning yourself to the opposition?

No doubt, no doubt about that. It also helped if we wanted to continue playing a role in addressing some of the other problems in the country, that we had no other agenda but to maintain human dignity, sanctity of life and all these things.

Now Mozambique's at peace. You have had Renamo in parliament, you have Frelimo in parliament, but just in the last few months there's been new tension, there's been some fighting, and I believe you've been to see the leader of Renamo and the President. Tell us about your current role.

First of all, thank God, we have been celebrating this year the 21st anniversary of the restoration of peace in Mozambique. We said right from the beginning that we will continue working for peace. Not all that we have done needs public reporting but the important thing is to say that we see peace as being rooted in Mozambique: Mozambicans have shown they are very fertile soil for peace and it is in that context that the recent disturbances have led us - well it may be a little more visible, but it's really part of our vocation.

What we are saying is that dialogue has to continue at all levels, formally and informally, not only between the two sides but also among all other Mozambicans. We are thankful to God that both sides see us as having a role to play and that's what we are doing. We are convinced that peace will prevail in Mozambique and we just have to make sure that that dialogue is not just on political levels but also on social issues.

Above all, no one needs to be unnecessarily armed. Only people who are accountable to the state should be armed and that is a message we are trying to convey to both sides.

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