HARARE, Zimbabwe - 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.
Worshipers 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 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 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 fell into disrepair as 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 became flea markets and drinking halls that attracted prostitutes, officials said. Garbage and rat feces littered 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 altar, the chancel behind the altar, the furnishings, the organ, and sacred ornaments were to be cleansed and rededicated to restore the building "to a place for bringing hope to us and the whole community."