Editor's note: This story was updated Jan. 17 to note the internet is back up and include Zimbabwe's Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa.
United Methodists in Zimbabwe are calling for prayers for peace amid violence across the nation that has taken lives, shuttered businesses and earlier in the week, led the government to block the country’s internet.
"In a situation where violence has erupted United Methodist church programs were affected," said Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa, who oversees United Methodists in Zimbabwe. "Free movement of people to and from churches was difficult at the height of the disturbances. We thank God that we have not heard of injury or loss of properties related to our church members."
As of Jan. 17, he said the situation was returning to normalcy. Internet service also returned. But he asked United Methodists to still pray for the people of Zimbabwe.
"It is the role of the church to continue to pray for peace for the whole country," he said. "There has been a general discontent over the economic challenges the country is facing. But our prayer is that people should shun violence and demonstrate peacefully."
Throughout the unrest that began Jan. 14, the United Methodist Africa University near Mutare, Zimbabwe, has been holding classes as scheduled. All on campus are safe and the university's Harare office continues to take care of international students, said Munashe Furusa, vice chancellor.
The violence has occurred far from the pan-African university campus in the country’s major cities of Harare and Bulawayo. Clashes between protesters and Zimbabwe security forces led to at least eight deaths and 25 others wounded in a government crackdown on national protests, reports Amnesty International.
The protests began in major cities after President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s surprise announcement Jan. 12 that the already economically battered country would see a 150 percent increase in fuel prices. The hike caused the price of petrol to rise from $1.24 to $3.31 U.S. a liter, which makes Zimbabwe the most expensive place in the world to gas up a car.
The tumult led businesses to close and local air carrier Fastjet Zimbabwe to cancel flights.
This marks the second crackdown since the election of Mnangagwa last year. In 2017, after nearly 10 years of economic crisis, national leaders removed President Robert Mugabe, who for 37 years led what many called “a government of tyranny.”
Mnangagwa has been struggling to contain Zimbabwe’s economic woes and has faced strikes by medical staff and threats of labor action by civil servants in recent weeks.
Starting the evening of Jan. 14, the government also blocked access to popular social media sites WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. The nation’s two largest service providers went a step further and shut down their customers’ access to the entire internet. The internet returned for some on Jan. 16, but service remained erratic.
Some Zimbabweans saw the shutdown as an effort to suppress protests, while others saw it as a precaution to prevent looting. Some looters told Al Jazeera they were taking the opportunity to stock up on food rather than pay the exorbitant prices that have resulted from the spike in fuel costs.
At a Sunday revival Jan. 13, the Rev. Oscar Mukahanana encouraged congregants to remain calm and prayerful because the battle was not theirs. Mukahanana is superintendent in Harare East District. The theme of the day was “Fear Not.”
Many Zimbabweans have been staying indoors.
In the Zimbabwe East Conference, teachers at United Methodist schools have been under lockdown with no one allowed to enter or leave the campuses. In the Zimbabwe West Conference, schools are open but only part-time. A number of parents picked up their students when violence escalated.
Some hospitals are struggling to provide care because many medical staff cannot find a safe route to work. Last week, doctors ended a 40-day strike for better pay and conditions without a deal.
Nonetheless, ministry continues. A mission team from Community United Methodist Church in Crofton, Maryland, arrived safely in Harare this week and has since traveled on to the rural town of Hanwa. For more than 20 years, the Maryland congregation has worked in partnership with the rural Murewa District in the Zimbabwe West Conference.
“I am comforted by the fact that they are with friends and thankful that they are in a rural area, but prayers are certainly appreciated,” said Carol Moore, whose husband Charlie is leading the mission team.
The five United Methodist missionaries and six Global Mission Fellows serving in Zimbabwe are continuing to work. This week, they are attending a missionary gathering in South Africa.
The Zimbabwe Council of Churches, of which The United Methodist Church is a key member, is also at work.
"We are working with others in the ZCC to encourage dialogue, which might help to raise the banner of peace and love among our people as Zimbabweans," Nhiwatiwa said."It is obvious that the church must continue to work and pray day and night for such efforts to produce tangible fruits of peace and harmony."
It is unknown when all Zimbabweans can return to business as usual, particularly in the country’s urban areas.
“We are safe, but we are disconnected from all business,” said the Rev. Lancelot Mukundu, chair of the United Methodist Nyadire Mission Centre in the northeastern part of Zimbabwe, on Jan. 16. “We cannot get supplies. We cannot use our computers. We cannot travel.”
He added: “We really need God’s prayers."
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service, and Chingwe is communications coordinator for the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference. Tafadzwa Mudambanuki, senior manager of central conference relations at United Methodist Communications, contributed to the story.