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Leading Zimbabwe Priest's Trial Ends

The ecclesiastical trial of Zimbabwe's top Anglican cleric, a strong supporter of President Robert Mugabe, came to a quick end Thursday. The proceeding ended when the presiding judge withdrew from the case.

Bishop Nolbert Kunonga, head of Zimbabwe's Anglican community, was accused by priests and church officials of 11 charges, including incitement to commit murder, misapproriation of funds and besmirching the church's reputation.

Bishop Kunonga's lawyer argued that he had not been given enough information by the prosecution about the charges for the trial to proceed.

After heated argument about technicalities, some of it about the rule of church law and secular law, Judge James Kalaile, from the Malawian Supreme Court, withdrew from the case and said he would ask Archbishop Bernard Malanga, head of the province of Central Africa in Malawi, which has authority over Zimbabwe, to appoint another judge.

Bishop Kunonga would only speak to Zimbabwe's state controlled media after the aborted hearing. He is a public supporter of President Robert Mugabe, who reportedly has given him a former white-owned commercial farm.

The bishop says the charges against him are politically motivated.

Many Anglicans, including priests and other church officials, had come from all over Zimbawe and from South Africa and London to testify againt the bishop.

One of them, Pauline Makoni, said the case against the bishop has not ended because the trial has been cancelled. She said that church law, or canons as they are called by Anglicans, still has to be obeyed.

"We have come here, we have had the ruling, the judges have excused themselve it doesn't change the facts, so the situation is the same. The acts and canons of this diocese were still violated by the bishop. That is what we are still stating," she said. "Just because today hasn't happened. We still have a case that's all there is to it, one day hopefully it will be heard."

Retired American priest, Reverend Russell Ayeres, a frequent visitor to Zimbabwe on church business over the past 22 years, came to observe the case for leading Anglicans around the world. He says there have been upheavals in the Zimbabwe Anglican community since Bishop Kunonga's appointment five years ago.

"In this diocese in particular, leadership has been the focus of contention and disagreement," he said. "It appears that usual procedures and principles of leadership and management and indeed what we call governnance which are proscribed have not been observed. This is what has been alleged. The bishop has been called to book [called to respond to these charges] for these irregularities as to whether they are true or not, but essentially this is what has characterised his whole term of office as bishop."

Had the trial taken place, it would have been the first time charges of such a serious nature had been adjudicated by the Anglican Church in Africa.