ARCHBISHOP Telesphore Mpundu says the Church Empowerment Fund is a blatant form of corruption and it should be stopped.

But Northmead Assemblies of God Church presiding Bishop, Joshua Banda, has defended the initiative, saying the Church, like many other sectors that benefitted from the Central Bank stimulus package, deserved government help to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking when they featured on the Hot FM Beyond Headlines Radio programme, Wednesday, the two Church leaders expressed strong opposing views on the K50 million Church empowerment fund.

Archbishop Mpundu said there are always cables (strings) attached when a politician goes to donate bloated envelops “the size of a pillow” to the church.

“I think that certain actions must be named by their names. This is naked corruption. It should not be done. Why today of all months and all years have we come up with an empowerment fund that is at the service of elections? It’s unfortunate in Zambia that once a political party is voted into power, they want to stay there forever which is very shameful because a democracy should not be like that. They use every means to win the favour of the people and to be retained to power. This is pure corruption and it should be stopped. Churches don’t have businesses, they depend on the support of the people. If the government is doing its best to have a vibrant economy, our people (Christians) will profit from that and they are going to support the church. But why all of a sudden now we change our modus operandi into giving directly, things like that? No, it is not only suspicious but also a euphemism for corruption, pure corruption!” he exclaimed.

“The Church needs to be guided to say don’t just go and ask for this kind of thing (empowerment) because tomorrow when the government comes in, they will be very excited [to receive the empowerment]. But we as church leaders will say but why didn’t you consult us?’ when you are accepting a gift like that, there are strings, not strings, but there are cables attached all the time. So we tell them to be careful. There are many ways of the government coming in. Why is the government initiating these empowerments now? It’s very suspicious and this empowerment is creating a euphemism for corruption. They want a good face with the electorates so that they can be elected back. But this is not a clean way of going back to power. It’s a shameful way.”

Asked if church leaders were being turned into cadres by cash donations, Archbishop Mphundu observed that the church leaders, including priests and bishops actually invite politicians to go and donate.

“The situation is not for politicians saying ‘we would like to come to your church,’ it is in most cases deliberately done by our own priests and in some cases even the bishops. They ask with a view of getting that donation. And the President or minister does not come alone. They come as a team. And you will see those brown envelops bigger than pillowcases or pillows. And this is exactly what they (politicians) are waiting for, to be invited. If they are Christians, they belong to their own group and they should go to church as members of that particular Christian community,” he said.

“I am appealing to our population in Zambia especially the church that you have also to accept that as church, we have to be in politics and don’t just put us in the sacred. It begins from the sacredly and goes out to the people. So, don’t call me to say ‘you are a politician.’ Yes, I am a politician. It’s only that I am not a political politician I am a non-partisan politician, and if the political parties powers that be recognised that. I have been stigmatised and I don’t mind. I will not die even if they kill me.”

When reminded that the Catholic Church was divided over the Church Empowerment Fund, Archbishop Mpundu said that was government’s strategy.

“That’s what they want. The government is cheering itself, they are happy that ‘we have done it’. Even at the time when I was President of the Council myself, we sat with other leaders and unanimously issued a statement over the brutal arrest of HH. But the next day we heard a dissenting voice from a bishop in Ndola. That’s what the Romans did, it’s called divide and rule and the government is enjoying that,” said Mpundu.

But Bishop Banda said there was nothing wrong with Church Empowerment Fund.

“There is a place for some of what’s taking place and there is a context in that. And the context is that we have observed since the dawn of COVID-19 that government took steps to try and get into some stimulus actions that would sort of add some life back to ailing sectors of the economy. We are aware of that. It’s sort of basic question to ask that when some of that begun, very little was being said on whether that was necessary or not. I must however qualify this and make it very clear that when we sit as our section of the church, there is no way we can condone acts that would tie our hands where we need to speak because our calling and mandate is from the Lord. And no measure of attempt by any sector of our society including government can cause us to keep quiet where we need to speak,” he said.

“But this particular set of actions, in my view, in all fairness and objectivity is one that we have observed. In fact, when the millions where set aside at the Bank of Zambia and when different sectors were beginning to be given and directed towards particular banking institutions and people were told how these businesses were able to access; some of us were already actually asking questions to say ‘how about the church?’ So, the particular K50 million that has already been given at this point has its history back to the Copperbelt where at one time, there was a meeting between the Head of State and about 300 to 400 pastors and the pastors asked this question to say ‘how about the church?’ And that’s how this came in. so, it’s within context. So, rightly speaking, the church is as affected as any other section of society and there is a place for that. So, there were well considered reasons why sections of the church including ourselves are thinking that there is nothing wrong.”

He however prayed that there was no ill motive attached to the empowerment fund.

“But please keep in mind that the issue of timing when something like this is done is a serious moral question. And if people who have power in their hands choose to do this just to be able to gain favor in an election we know that God sees those motives,” said Bishop Banda.

“The role of the church in an election year like this one is very crucial, but it is also just as crucial in any other time. The church must remain non-partisan and maintain its prophetic, pastoral, and priestly role. The church is the hope for the nation and I believe that that’s the same for Zambia. And God has given to the church the ability to be able to be there and help to preserve society. And in this particular country, Zambia is very fortunate to have a strong, thriving church which may have its own issues, but we handle those.”