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Bishops in Zambia Decline Government’s “Church Empowerment Fund”, Give Reasons

President of the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops (ZCCB), Bishop George Cosmas Zumaire Lungu.

Catholic Bishops in Zambia have declined to take up the “Church Empowerment Fund” (CEF) introduced by the country’s leadership to cushion churches amid financial hardships following COVID-19 restrictions.

In a statement circulated Sunday, April 4, the President of the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops (ZCCB), Bishop George Cosmas Zumaire Lungu explains the “main reasons” why the ZCCB members have declined the government’s offer.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has come with its own challenges. We as a church have not been spared …With the reduced spiritual activities and gatherings, income to run the church affairs has been adversely affected,” Bishop Lungu says in the April 4 statement obtained by ACI Africa.

Catholic Bishops in Zambia, Bishop Lungu says, “have taken a stand to respectively decline receiving or accessing these funds,” which amount to K50 million Zambian Kwacha (K) (US$2.26 million).

Among the reasons for declining the funds is the timing of the offer, which Bishop Lungu says raises concerns as it comes during the electioneering period.

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“The timing of all these initiatives leaves room for speculation. It may well be pure coincidence that all this is happening within the election [period]. However, it certainly has a tinge of political strategy in the service of the donors,” the Local Ordinary of Zambia’s Chipata Diocese says.

He adds referencing the CEF, “We may give it a benefit of doubt but the truth will eventually set us free. As such and in view of maintaining the non-partisan and prophetic stance of the Church, we have deemed it right and fit that we decline the offer in the run up to the August 12 general elections.”

Another reason for declining the offer is that the source of the funds “is not very clear (and) is not very well known,” the Zambian Bishop says in the statement titled, “Master, do you not care? We are going down,” an inspiration from the Gospel according to St. Mark.

“People need to know where this money is coming from and how it is going to be accounted for,” ZCCB President says and poses, “We have had so many empowerment funds given to various individuals and groups, who is following up the usage of these monies and is this the best way of empowering our people including the church?”

In the three-page statement dated April 2, the Zambian Bishop underscores the need for “an explicit and transparent way of utilizing public funds.”

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“In view of the principles of social justice and the preferential option for the poor, the Church prefers to see the same money be channeled to other need areas,” Bishop Lungu says, giving another reason for ZCCB members’ decision to decline CEF.

He goes on to highlight some areas where the country’s leadership could channel the funds including servicing the country’s “huge debt,” settling dues for retirees “who have been desperately waiting for … many years,” and clearing the nine months unpaid salary arrears for the employees of Chipata City Council.

Catholic Bishops in Zambia would also want the funds channeled to the healthcare sector to facilitate the provision of “sufficient supplies of essential drugs and other requirements,” and to employ health professionals who have been jobless “as a way of empowering them, so that they can in turn support the Church.”

In the statement addressed to his “beloved Priests, Religious Men and Women, and the Lay Faithful,” Bishop Lungu bemoans the poor state of various roads and related infrastructure in the Eastern Province of the country saying, “If the funds can be channeled towards such projects, it will empower our people with better roads and services for a long time to come.”

The 61-year-old Bishop also says ZCCB members want the Zambian government to keep its promise of lowering fees charged on organizations that benefit the public such as the Church, a move that will see a reduction in the immigration fees for missionaries and lay volunteers.

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“As Church, we have been negotiating with government since regarding the increased immigration fees where a temporal permit for missionary priests, sisters and lay volunteers will cost K21,210 (US$ 961.00) from the previous K3,230 (USD 146.00) and the renewal permit will now cost 18,550 Zambian Kwacha (USD 840.00) from the previous K2,200 (US$100.00),” he says.

The Bishop goes on to highlight the work of missionaries who “endure hardships as they provide pastoral care to many needy Zambians” in the country’s rural areas and notes, “a better and long-lasting empowerment for the Church would be to exempt it from paying high fees on immigration issues as well as other forms of taxes.”

“In as much as we need these funds to run the affairs of the Church, we are humbly asking the government to consider the aforementioned as a form of the empowerment that shall ease the burden of our fellow citizens,” Bishop Lungu says in the six-point statement.

Channeling the funds to the suggested causes “shall be another form of church empowerment bearing in mind that the same citizens, our members, are directly responsible in supporting the Church and its Clergy,” he reiterates.

“In view of the above and in the light of the ZCCB decision, I wish to direct Catholic institutions or organizations or parish or lay movement in the Diocese of Chipata not to access these funds through the Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs or otherwise,” Bishop Lungu directs.

He expresses his appreciation for the generosity of “all weather friends who have been so generous all the time in support of our local church, whether during or outside the election period” and encourages them to continue.

He goes on to caution the people of God under his pastoral care not to entertain “those donations, which are followed by cameras and speeches and appearing either on the national broadcaster or indeed private media often with political overtones.”

“It should also be noted that we need to avoid soliciting some funding while capitalizing on the campaign generosity of visitors especially during liturgical gatherings,” he adds.

He further says, making reference to the Gospel according to St. Mark, “Much as we are in need of the funds to run the affairs of the church, our Lord will not allow us to drown in the seas of COVID-19 challenges but with Him on board, time for calm will surely arrive like the dawn of a new day.”

“Let your well informed and formed conscious, which is the voice of God, be your last consultant on what to do with regards to the welfare of our people regardless of political and religious affiliation,” Bishop Lungu says.