HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — A Zimbabwe court has ordered a breakaway Anglican bishop to return church property he seized after his excommunication in 2007.
Supreme Court Judge Yunus Omerjee ruled Monday that Bishop Nolbert Kunonga has no right to the church property because he left the mainstream Anglican Church.
Zimbabwe's Anglican Church has been divided since Kunonga, a loyalist to President Robert Mugabe, was excommunicated in 2007 by the main Anglican Province of Central Africa and the worldwide head of the church for inciting violence in sermons supporting Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. Kunonga broke away from the Anglican Church and formed an independent Harare diocese. He held the Anglican Cathedral in Harare and several other churches, with the help of police.
The schism left mainstream Anglicans without places of worship and many were subjected to intimidation and violence.
Omerjee's ruling stated that Kunonga did not have the right to the Anglican church property.
"When one leaves a club one does not take its property with him or her. It has long been established as a salutary principle of law in this area of property ownership that when one or more people secede from an existing church, they have no right to claim church property even if those who remain members of the congregation are in the minority," said the judgment.
After the ruling Monday, Anglican worshipers sang, danced and ululated outside the court.
The head of Zimbabwe's mainstream Anglicans, Bishop Chad Gandiya described Monday's ruling as a "pleasant surprise."
"We prayed, we waited and we have been vindicated," Gandiya said. "This is God's doing."
An earlier ruling made in August last year by Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, another open supporter of Mugabe's party, had allowed Kunonga to retain the cathedral and its administrative offices, bank accounts and vehicles.
During the past five years, Kunonga had intensified seizures of the Anglican Church property, taking over orphanages, church buildings and schools countrywide with the help of police loyal to Mugabe.
Kunonga claims he left the mainstream Anglican Church because of its position on gay marriage.
Leaders of the global Anglican Communion have condemned gay relationships as a violation of Scripture. However, the Anglican Communion is loosely organized without one authoritative leader such as a pope, so some individual provinces have accepted same-gender unions and in the United States an openly gay man was the Bishop of New Hampshire.
Mugabe is a bitter critic of homosexuality.
The former head of the worldwide Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, visited Zimbabwe last year and handed Mugabe a dossier detailing allegations of the intimidation of worshipers.
The report described a "litany of abuses" including murder, harassment and assaults of parishioners by police and Kunonga's followers.
Mugabe then claimed he was unfamiliar with the scale of intimidation experienced by mainstream Anglicans.
Gandiya, the Zimbabwe Anglican bishop, told The Associated Press that most parishioners who had taken to worshiping under trees and leased buildings are "ecstatic" at having their places of worship back.
"We have been in exile for five years but now we are going back home," he said.