HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) -- Mainstream Anglican Christians in Zimbabwe took back their cathedral on Sunday after a lockout of more than five years staged by an excommunicated, breakaway bishop who claimed loyalty to the president's party and used loyalist police to keep people out.
Worshippers from across the country and regional church leaders thronged the central Harare square for a service to "cleanse and re-dedicate" the historic colonial-era cathedral towering over the square.
Bishop Chad Gandiya struck the main doors three times with a pastoral staff to have them opened. He blessed what he called the "defiled" interior with signs of the cross ahead of the first Eucharist service by mainstream Anglicans since they were often violently banished from churches and missions seized nationwide.
The nation's highest court has declared the seizures illegal.
Breakaway Bishop Nolbert Kunonga launched a campaign a decade ago against the regional Anglican Church of the Province of Central Africa to which Zimbabwe belongs, claiming it supported gay rights. In outspoken sermons, he backed militants of President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in violent elections and repeated much of Mugabe's criticism of his political opponents and the United States and Britain, the former colonial power before independence in 1980.
Kunonga seized church bank accounts and cars as his followers occupied church schools, orphanages and other properties.
Gandiya's diocese officials said many of those facilities went into disrepair -- churches were locked and ousted worshippers held their services in Roman Catholic church halls, public areas and homes.
Some church buildings were turned into dormitories and food kitchens for Kunonga's supporters. Others were turned into flea markets and drinking halls that attracted prostitutes, officials said. Garbage and rat feces were strewn across some of the newly entered churches.
Last month's ruling of the Supreme Court ordered Kunonga to hand back all church assets.
"We must all ensure this never happens again," Gadiya told cheering and ululating congregants Sunday. "Let us be ready for the journey from the past to the future. Let's press on to rebuild our church."
"Over time, our places of worship have been defiled," he said. The cathedral's alter, the chancel behind the altar, the furnishings, the organ and sacred ornaments were to be cleansed and re-dedicated to restoring the building "to a place for bringing hope to us and the whole community."
Kunonga removed burial plaques, tombstones, carvings and commemorative displays honoring prominent colonial-era citizens as well as black soldiers of the colonial African Rifles regiment who fought for Britain and its allies in the First and Second World Wars. Those relics are believed to have been destroyed.
Gandaya praised church members for enduring their period of "exile" from their places of worship and years of "persecution and pain" with faith and courage.
Many Christians at home and worldwide "stood by us and contributed their sweat in prayer for us," Gandiya said.
Similar cleansing services are scheduled to begin Monday in parishes outside the capital, Harare.
Choirs of men, women and children danced to the beat of drums and gourd-like rattles, and sang hymns and African spirituals in the local Shona language.
"This is a happy day. Our young brothers and sisters are singing at the top of their voices with all the joyousness of their hearts," said Edmore Murape, a Harare grandfather who said he was baptized an Anglican 60 years ago.
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