California church wants to resume helping AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe after arrests of 5 members

Sunday, September 12, 2010

US church wants to resume Zimbabwe AIDS work

JOHANNESBURG — A California church wants to get back to helping AIDS orphans in Africa, once it resolves questions over licensing that led to the arrests of six of its workers in impoverished Zimbabwe, a minister said Sunday.

The six — five Americans and a Zimbabwean — were arrested Friday and have been held at Harare Central police station, where conditions in the cells are notoriously grim. They will appear in court Monday on charges of operating without proper medical licenses, according to their lawyer in Zimbabwe.

Theophous Reagans, a minister at the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California, said by telephone Sunday the church has been working in Zimbabwe for more than a decade and that this is the first time questions over licensing have been raised. He said one of the Americans lives in Zimbabwe, while the others are among church members who visit three or four times a year, paying their own way to help at a home for AIDS orphans the congregation has adopted.

“Our prayer and our hope is that they will be released,” after Monday’s hearing, Reagans told The Associated Press.

The church’s work in Zimbabwe was started in 2000 by Robert C. Scott, an Allen Temple member, AIDS activist and doctor. Scott died last year.

“Dr. Scott worked diligently for 10 years to build that ministry and serve,” Reagans said. “We want to continue.”

Reagans said most of Allen Temple Baptist Church members are black, and feel a strong connection to Africa.

In 2008, at the height of a political crisis in Zimbabwe, the government accused independent aid groups of supporting opposition activists and barred them from distributing aid for three months.

Zimbabwe also has clashed with aid groups over funding. In 2007, Zimbabwe’s central bank confiscated U.S. dollars being held in local bank accounts, including about $12 million belonging to the Global Fund, a major international supporter of programs to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. When the central bank failed to return its money, the Global Fund threatened to cut off aid. Its funds were eventually returned.

Conditions for international aid workers have eased since longtime ruler Robert Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing agreement with his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister last year. The partnership has been strained. Mugabe’s supporters continue to be accused of abusing human rights, but Tsvangirai’s party has been praised for its administration of key ministries, including health, education and finance.

Reagans said his church had not been affected by previous problems encountered by international aid workers in Zimbabwe.

“We really believe that for the last nine-10 years, we have been working in consort with the authorities in Zimbabwe,” he said.

The Herald, a state-run Zimbabwe newspaper, quoted police as saying the church workers were being questioned about operating an unlicensed clinic and dispensing medicine without a pharmacist’s supervision.

“It is our duty to ensure that all clinics and medical institutions are registered for easy monitoring,” police spokesman Augustine Zimbili told The Herald. “There is a risk of dispensation of expired drugs. When premises are not licensed, it is difficult to check if (the law) is being complied with.”

Jonathan Samukange, the lawyer in Zimbabwe representing the detained church workers, said they have proper licenses and were only supervising a pharmacy that mainly gave out AIDS medications.

The church’s Web site said its work in Zimbabwe began when Scott and other church members attended an international AIDS conference in neighboring South Africa.

They made a trip to Zimbabwe alongside the conference, and moved by what they saw at the Mother of Peace Orphanage, persuaded their church to support the home just outside Harare for children who have lost parents to AIDS.

In Scott’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gloria Cox Crowell, who ran a church AIDS outreach program with Scott and was among those arrested in Zimbabwe last week, was quoted as saying the orphanage cemetery “was the biggest motivation” in the decision to support Mother of Peace.

“We saw the little tiny crosses for the children who had died there, and they had all died of complications from AIDS. He (Scott) wanted to do something about that.”

Scott had earlier founded the AIDS Project of the East Bay to support HIV-positive people in Oakland and try to prevent the spread of the virus, and the AIDS program at his church.

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