Churches, council clash over debts:
FOLLOWING the publication of Harare City Council’s list of big debtors last week, the local authority is at loggerheads with several churches that are disputing the figures, with some dragging the council to court. Seventeen churches were on the list. These are Celebration Church which reportedly owes US$846 564,49, Methodist Church in Zimbabwe (US$183 708,04), Zaoga (US$42 000,94), Christ Embassy (US$166 867,89), Salvation Army (US$309 511,72), Apostolic Faith Mission (US$682 231,25), Anglican (US$142 503,50), United Methodist Church (US$143 073,64) and Jehovah’s Witness (US$20 280,16).
Also is debt is Apostolic Pentecostal Church (Us$88 714,27), Johanne Masowe WeChishanu (US$15 000,38), Prophetic, Healing and Deliverance Ministries (US$200 181,52), Dutch Reformed Church ($165 365,68), Universal Church ($136 128,27), Church of Nazarene (US$86 014,61), Seventh Day Adventist (US$615 964,56) and Assemblies of God (US$49 440,67). The debt totals US$3 893 558,59. In an interview with personnel from the listed churches, most of them highlighted that council was charging commercial rates for their charity work in addition to United States dollar interest rates on debts accumulated during the Zimbabwe dollar era.
In addition, some of the churches insisted that they had not refused to cooperate with council but the debts were speculative. Salvation Army’ spokesperson Captain Victor Mafukidze said most of the debts had accumulated within homes that take care of the less privileged where financial aid had ceased.
“The conversion which happened from a Zim-dollar to a US dollar economy meant things went haywire. In this conversion they did not consider churches. We are currently servicing interests as they continue accumulating. Churches are not companies but charitable organisations which carry social responsibility programmes in the community. We have hospitals, we run homes for the less privileged and have built schools to meet the needs of the community.
“We are not profit making like other churches which venture in building hotels, yet they charge us commercial rates,” Captain Mafukidze said.
He added: “Local Government should consider our complementary role to Government as charitable organisations. This is voluntary, a calling and not a job.
“Harare City Council should consider the service we offer and subsidise us in that regard. For instance, our institutions like Braeside Old People’s Home run independently. People who used to assist financially lost jobs or were retrenched, they cannot support us anymore.”
United Methodist Church administrative assistant Reverend Alan Masimba Gurupira said they were in the process of verifying figures that were published by the Harare City Council. “Council did engage us on several occasions, but I think those who published the list did not consider what was happening on the ground. A number of our churches are engaging the council and I can confirm that they have payment plans.
“We are verifying the figures, they might be low or high. We will let you know when we are done with that process. We are also in the process of identifying which church has a payment plan and which one does not have. We will assist those who do not have so that we will amicably settle the debt,” Rev Gurupira said. Anglican Church Diocesan Secretary Reverend Clifford Dzawo concurred with the process of verifying figures released by council. “We will do a follow-up because we want to understand how they came up with such a figure. As the diocesan office, we have a payment plan with them and they know that we pay.
“One other thing that could be of interest is that the money owed to the City Council by the church was all inherited from (former Bishop Nolbert) Kunonga’s administration. If you look at our current bills and rates, statements are up to date.
“Again when publishing the list, the council did not engage us but it’s not a problem because we owe them.
Weighing in but preferring to be anonymous, a Zaoga official said they were surprised to see their name on the debtors list as they were making plans to service the debt.
“We are yet to verify the figures that were published by Harare City Council, we have since contacted our districts as well as individual churches to verify. Before they published the list I went directly to council offices and saw an official (name supplied), we discussed a payment plan.
“But I was surprised to see our name on the list of churches that are not cooperating with the council. It’s true council contacted us as the head office but they did not contact individual churches. I have since realised that the amount they published include the current rates so if we pay the current it will not be that huge. I will go again and see the council official, maybe he can shed more light on this matter,” said the source.
Seventh Day Adventist North Zimbabwe Conference president Dr Obert Mudzengi said they have set up a team of treasurers who will visit the branches which are reportedly owing council.
“The Harare City Council didn’t engage us directly as conference offices, neither did it contact our national office, the Zimbabwe Union Conference. “My understanding or my thinking is that they have been dealing directly with individual Seventh Day Adventist churches. It came also as news to me that we are owing council that much. I only received a Press cutting last week from a colleague indicating that SDA is among the churches owing Harare City Council. At the moment I cannot even deny or confirm that SDA churches in Harare are owing Harare City Council USD$615 964,56,” Dr Mudzengi said.
Methodist Church in Zimbabwe presiding bishop, Reverend Solomon Zwana, said their churches have no arrears amounting to US$183 708,04. “I don’t know if we are the ones they are talking about because there are many Methodist churches. But if they are referring to us they are misguided,” he said.
The church’s mission director, Dr Kennedy Gondongwe, concurred adding: “As Methodist Church in Zimbabwe we are not owing Harare City council that much. After all, they did not even engage us in any way. The only church that we know as head office that is owing city council is Mabvuku church which is supposed to pay US$10 000 only.
“And I understand that Mabvuku church made arrangements with the council and they have come up with a payment plan which they are adhering to. They are also showing us all the receipts as proof of their payments. I don’t even know why the council decided to publish our name, it’s very ridiculous and tarnishing.
“If the presiding bishop was here we were going to ask him for a permission to engage our legal team and ask the council why it did that. They should issue an apology.
Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that council did not engage them either.
“It’s true we are owing council but they should have engaged us before publishing our name in the Press. As you know, we have a number of churches and that is expected. We are not happy with the way council handled this matter, bringing it up in the newspapers for the wrong reasons. It’s not good for the church.
“However, we are going to discuss with them as soon as possible and make sure that the issue is resolved amicably,” Mr Norman Ndebele said.
Meanwhile, Celebration Church has taken the council to High Court disputing the debt figure.
It stated that the city continued to bill the church even though it has been relying exclusively on borehole water since the pre-dollarisation era.
Celebration Church claims it only owes US$154 520,95, not the published US$846 564,49. Harare City Council spokesperson Mr Michael Chideme was adamant that the figures published were correct.
“Yes, we are charging all activities happening at premises so if they are doing any commercial activity we are charging. Churches should know that there is honour in telling the truth. All the churches whose names were published owe the city.
“While they are coming to you with false claims they are also coming to us to settle their bills and to make payment plans. The list that we published was of churches that had not responded to our calls for payment plans and which had neglected paying their bills as depicted by the huge amounts owing,” said Mr Chideme.
Last year, council offered churches on lease agreements the opportunity to buy the stands, but predicated the purchase on clearing of outstanding debts.