PRISCILLA MWILA, Livingstone
ELECTIONS give an opportunity to people in a democracy to choose leaders of their choice in a free and fair environment.
But Livingstone residents feel that perhaps the environment wasn’t very fair because some churches became political showgrounds in the run-up to the 2016 presidential and general elections.
Because the Church is perceived as a neutral sanctuary for people of different political inclinations, religious leaders are expected to be politically impartial in order to embrace everyone.
This is why Livingstone residents have expressed concern about the manner in which the Church and religious leaders are covertly actively participating in politics.
Petitioners told the Commission of Inquiry into Voting Patterns and Electoral Violence that in the 2016 elections, some clergymen and women abused the pulpit to influence congregants to vote for their preferred candidates.
The tendency by politicians to frequent churches to woo the support of voters was among the concerns aired by petitioners to the commission here.
The Justice Munalula Lisimba-led commission heard that politicians suddenly become religious during elections, but abandon the Church after the polls.
Muyanga Shalila 45, told the commission that there were a number of clerics who were holding private meetings with politicians during election campaigns.
Mr Shalila narrated that one Sunday morning, during a service at his church, a pastor told the congregation not to vote for the ruling party.
“Congregating and praying became difficult in some of our churches because people were divided. Some people were supporting the Patriotic Front while others were for UPND.
“The situation became worse when our pastor said we should vote for a person who speaks and understands us very well and not a stranger. Some of our church members started murmuring in disagreement,” he said.
After that, church attendance in Mr Shalila’s church became poor until after the elections.
Christina Life Harvest Church International pastor Beston Simumba shared that his members were put in an awkward situation when two of his elders decided to contest council seats on the UPND and PF tickets, though in different wards.
Pastor Simumba, 45, shared that in such a situation, a pastor should show political neutrality to avoid divisions among congregants.
Pastor Simumba shared that the two church elders tried to solicit his support, but he opted to remain neutral as expected of a spiritual father.
“The situation was difficult for us as a church, but we used to pray for both our members and fortunately enough, they both won on their respective tickets,” he said.
And when Commission chairperson Justice Lisimba asked him about the overall behaviour of the Church before, during and after elections, Pastor Simumba said it was disappointing that some clerics decided to play politics in the church.
“What is very disappointing is that even some of our (church) mother bodies are no longer objective and have become partisan. This has put us in an awkward situation and we might lose the respect that society has for us,” he said.
Pastor Simumba’s view is that religious leaders should guide, counsel and reconcile politicians. When they openly take partisan interests, it would be difficult for them to play this role.
But why would the clergy take political sides during the elections? The feeling by some people is that probably the pastors want to position themselves for certain benefits from their political allies.
However, Pastor Simumba guided that running a church is not a profit making venture. He said servants of God should be people who are ready to serve without any ulterior motives.
Catholic priest Lastone Lupupa said priests, pastors or religious leaders are human beings who have the right to enjoy the democratic right of voting for candidates of their choice.
However, because of their position in society, the clergy shouldn’t openly align themselves to political candidates as they may influence their followers.
“The clergy are normal human beings and enjoy democratic rights too. But we are supposed to keep whatever decision we make to ourselves. Some of our members believe that whatever we say is the gospel truth, but we may have different preferences when it comes to voting,” he said.
Father Lupupa submitted that the clergy should not interfere with the choice of congregants during elections because each person has the right to choose who to vote for.
Petitioners also made submissions on myriad other national issues of public interest during elections, such as media coverage of political parties.
Prominent views were that the media in Zambia was polarised.
One Livingstone resident, Mubita Mate, said the two frontliners – PF and UPND – were covered in a different way by the public and private media respectively.
Mr Mate submitted that recipients of news had challenges believing news feed from the private and public media because they were carrying different stories.
Another petitioner from Mongu, Mushe Muluti, 41, said both public and private media need to provide fair coverage to the ruling and opposition political parties.
Striking sentiments centred on the bashing of political figureheads on church pulpits.
The feeling by many petitioners is that the Church should play the role of guiding political leaders and uniting the nation during elections. Therefore, to play this role, the clerics should not openly display political bias.
Others said it was better for members of the clergy who have partisan interests to join active politics and leave pulpits for credible servants of God.