INDEPENDENT Churches of Zambia board chairperson Bishop David Masupa says it is selfish of the Catholic Church to suggest the diversion of the Church Empowerment Fund when there are churches who are in dire need of help.

The comment comes in the wake of a statement from Chipata Diocese Bishop Rt Rev George Lungu who has questioned the source of the “Church Empowerment Fund” asking that the money be channelled to more needy areas of the economy.

In an interview, Bishop Masupa said churches, especially those that meet in school classrooms, and are yet to resume gathering, have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You may recall that the churches, and especially the independent churches of Zambia, 90 percent of it’s affiliates which are in thousands, worship in public schools and these public schools have since been stopped from worshiping, meaning that they should not bring the infection of COVID-19 to the pupils or the students. Now, you can imagine the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on these churches from last year when the COVID-19 came up to date. So meaning that those church leaders who were being supported by these churches are right now devastated and have been negatively been impacted in terms of livelihoods. So such kind of a thought, we take it to be a thought of being selfish and greedy because this COVID-19 has affected all sectors if the society including the Catholic Church itself. So let’s not pretend by now directing government as to where the funds should go, it is very unfair and unfortunate,” he said.

“They should not pretend because even Father’s and [Catholic] Priests are supported by the churches. So if they say no, let this money be diverted, that is definitely a selfish move and we will not support it. So, we support government, that let this money be distributed to all churches and especially those that are in rural areas. And this money is not being given as grants, it’s being given as loans which means it’s a revolving fund and it’s supposed to be laid back. So we will not support this with our colleagues and we are saying the youths have gotten, just as the musicians have gotten, the church also, it’s a living institution it has been affected, let it get.”

Bishop Masupa urged the catholic leadership to “stop being hypocritical”, charging that they too receive huge monetary gifts from politicians without questioning the source.

“As to where the money is coming from, first of all, institutions have been getting  [the money], including the catholic churches, why are they signposts? Sorry to call them that, they do receive money that comes from government, Sunday to Sunday. We have seen politicians visiting their churches and donating to them in thousands of Kwacha. Why don’t they refuse to say we don’t want this money, they are in the forefront. If there is any institution that has received money from this current patriotic front government in bulk, it’s the Catholic Church. So for them to say we don’t know where this money is coming from that is double standard. Why can’t they refuse the money that they receive Sunday to Sunday,” questioned Bishop Masupa.

“We want to quickly state that the Catholics run health institutions, a lot of hospitals, especially in the rural areas. So if they are asking for that in other words they are telling the government of the Republic of Zambia that all the money should be diverted to the catholic health institutions in Zambia because these other mainline health institutions under Ministry of Health have got their own allocations of the Covid-19 relief fund.”

Catholic Bishop questions source of “Church Empowerment Fund”
In a letter to the Chipata diocese, Friday, Bishop Lungu noted that despite the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented, the timing of the “Church Empowerment Fund” initiative leaves room for speculation because it has a tinge of political strategy.

“The timing of all these initiatives leaves room for speculation. It may well be pure coincidence that all this is happening within the Election Year. However, it certainly has a tinge of political strategy in the service of the donors. We may give it a benefit of doubt, but the truth will eventually set us free. As such, and in view of maintaining the no-partisan and prophetic stance of the Church, we have deemed it right and fitting that we decline the offer, in the run-up towards the August 12, 2021 General Elections,” he stated.

“In the light of the stance taken by the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops (ZCCB) with regard to the “Church Empowerment Fund,” I have deemed it necessary to provide the context within which that decision was made. This is also in a bid to give some guidance to you in the Diocese concerning the same. On one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has come with its own challenges. We as Church have not been spared. As the Chewa saying goes: “Kulibe nyemba yolewa mchere”. With the reduced spiritual activities and gatherings, income to run the Church affairs has been adversely affected. On the other, we are aware that Government has come up with the Church Empowerment Fund to help Churches as they struggle financially to make ends meet. However, as ZCCB, we have taken a stand to respectively decline receiving or accessing these funds.”

He added that the source of the money is not well known and wondered who is accounting for the said funds.

“In addition, the source of the so-called “Church Empowerment Fund” is not very well known. People need to know where this money is coming from and how it is going to be accounted for. 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? We need an explicit and transparent way of utilising public funds,” he stated.

Bishop Lungu stated that donations which are followed by cameras, speeches and political overtones should not be entertained in the church.

“On the other hand, let me be clear that I take cognisant of the fact that there are some initiatives taking place to raise funds for the smooth running of the Diocese, Parishes and Institutions. We have all-weather friends who have been so generous all the time in support of our local Church, whether during or outside the election period. These initiatives will have to continue. However, those donations, which are followed by cameras and speeches and appearing either on the national broadcaster or indeed private media, often with political overtones, should not be entertained. It should also be noted that we need to avoid soliciting some funding while capitalising on the “campaign generosity” of visitors, especially during liturgical gatherings. Much as we are in need of 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,” he stated.

And Bishop Lungu said that the fund should instead be channelled to other needy areas such as the country’s debt and unpaid salaries among others.

“That in view of the principles of social justice and the preferential option for the poor, the Church prefers to see the same money being channelled to other needy areas. We are aware that Zambia has a huge debt that needs to be serviced and the effects of this is seen in the many economic difficulties the country is currently facing. In addition, we have many retirees who have been desperately waiting for their hard-earned dues for many years. Some have since died; not only that, the Chipata City Council has had close to 9 months of unpaid salaries and arrears. Indeed, in as much as we need these funds to run the affairs of the Church, we are humbly asking Government to consider the aforementioned as a form of empowerment that shall ease the burden of our fellow citizens. This shall be another form of Church Empowerment, bearing in mind the fact that the same citizens are our members who are directly responsible of supporting the Church and its clergy,” Bishop Lungu stated.

“It is public knowledge that our health facilities, including our own Mission Hospitals, Clinics and Health Centres, do not have sufficient supply of essential drugs and other needs such as the Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for our health workers who are taking care of our brothers and sisters currently battling with the Coronavirus Disease. Additionally, most of our facilities are under staffed including government health facilities. We are therefore of the considered view that through the Ministry of Health, Government should empower our Health Institutions with essential drugs and other requirements to upscale our services in favour of all people regardless of Church affiliation. Government should also employ more health personnel and improve the working conditions of those that are already employed. We have thousands of unemployed youths who have graduated as nurses and some of them are saying that they are tired of volunteering now. Sadly, we even have doctors and paramedics who are unemployed. Let government employ them as a way of empowering them so that they can, in turn, support the Church,” he stated.

He added that exempting the church from paying high immigration fees as well as other forms of taxes would be a better and long lasting empowerment.

“As Church, we have been negotiating with government since January this year regarding the increased immigration fees where a temporal permit for Missionary Priests, Sisters and Lay-Volunteers will cost K21, 210 from the previous K3, 230 and a renewal permit will now cost K18, 550 from the previous K2, 200. In the meantime, we have been promised that lower fees will be set for Public Benefit Organisations (PBOs), including the Church. We remain hopeful that government will expedite the process of revising the said fees. Further, we wish to take note that most of these missionaries work in rural areas and endure hardships as they provide pastoral care to many needy Zambians, apart from complementing the efforts of government in the delivery of health, education and social welfare services. For us, 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,” stated Bishop Lungu.

“Not only that, our road networks in Eastern Province are in a terrible state. Talk of the Chipata-Chadiza road, Chipata-Vubwi road, Lundazi-Chama Road, Chipata —Lundazi, Lundazi Bridge, Lundazi-Lumimba road and many other feeder roads and bridges across the province. If these funds being distributed can be directed towards such projects that would empower our people with better roads and services for a long time to come.”

He directed that no Catholic Institution or Organization or Parish or Lay Movement in the Diocese of Chipata should access these funds through the Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs or otherwise.