IT IS Sunday morning and Mitsubishis and BMWs cram the landscaped, baby palm tree-dotted car park of Harare’s flashiest church, the 3,000-seat Celebration Centre in the plush Borrowdale suburb. Fashionably dressed children eat candy floss around the outdoor water features. Inside the main auditorium, the band warms up for the second service of the day.
On the prominently displayed list of those who made "outstanding" financial contributions or were part of the "half-a-million brick pledge" are some of Zimbabwe’s biggest names - businessmen, bankers and a mobile phone company owner. The rebel cricketer Henry Olonga is said to have been a member.
But the Celebration Centre - the flagship of Pastor Tom Deuschle’s Hear the Word Ministries - has been mired in controversy since it donated a Z$30 million (3,000) "gift" to Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, earlier this year.
"The scriptures say that we should honour our leaders," Mr Deuschle was quoted as saying. Critics said his church was attempting to buy Mr Mugabe’s favour ahead of a promised crackdown on churches that are believed to be sympathetic to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The controversy has highlighted how Mr Mugabe’s draconian regime has divided the church in Zimbabwe.
About 73 per cent of the population are Christian, according to figures published recently in state media.
Mr Mugabe is a Roman Catholic. He married his young secretary Grace in a lavish church ceremony in 1996, and was filmed last weekend taking mass with her at a memorial service for the late vice-president’s wife.
Uncomfortably for the 80-year-old leader, a local Roman Catholic priest has been one of his biggest critics. The Most Rev Pius Ncube, an archbishop from the city of Bulawayo, has called Mr Mugabe a "dictator". On a visit to South Africa in March, Archbishop Ncube called on Zimbabwe’s southern neighbour to impose sanctions.
Mr Mugabe was not pleased. At Saturday’s memorial service, he warned Archbishop Ncube to "leave politics to the politicians". He has had harsh words for another archbishop, South Africa’s Desmond Tutu, who echoed Ncube’s criticism. Mr Mugabe told Sky News last month that the Nobel prizewinner was an "angry, evil and embittered little bishop".
Mr Mugabe has groomed official praise singers. Rows of white-robed members of the Johane Masowe Apostolic Faith sect are a familiar sight at ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) rallies.
At least once a week, news bulletins on state radio feature an item from the previously unheard-of "Destiny of Africa Christian Broadcasters’ Network".
Typically the "founder and chairman" of the network, the Rev Sam Malunga, uses the airwaves to condemn white farmers or to urge Zimbabweans "to avoid electing legislators whose colonial mentality has remained unchanged".
Some believers have not been a problem. Last month, three Roman Catholic nuns joined the land grab, according to the Zimbabwe Independent. Aided by ZANU-PF youths, the sisters, all members of the Little Children of the Blessed Lady order, gave Arthur and Ansy Swales 24 hours to leave the farm they were leasing in the northern Darwendale district.
Threats and fear are used to control churches. Last week, the state-owned Herald reported that a United Methodist Church in Bulawayo was being investigated for alleged breaches of exchange control regulations. Salvation Army officials have also been accused.
As the ruling party intensifies preparations for general elections next March, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) is believed to have infiltrated congregations. Ministers watch their words. Prayers for "change" - the MDC’s slogan - are heard less frequently.
Meanwhile, Mr Mugabe’s standing is stronger than ever. His party has snatched back five seats from the opposition in recent by-elections, edging closer to a constitutional majority in parliament.
However, recent reports in state media hint at battles between new politicians and the older ZANU-PF guard over who should succeed Mr Mugabe, who has said this term in office is likely to be his last.
But the prospects for the MDC look grim. Its main voice, the Daily News, has been silenced and last week the state’s media licensing body banned the weekly Tribune, another paper that had hit out at alleged human rights abuses by the regime.
The government has sacked the MDC mayor of Harare, Elias Mudzuri, while the party leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is still waiting for a verdict on his treason trial. Last week, a judge threw out part of the MDC’s challenge to the 2002 presidential election, dealing a further blow to hopes of a poll re-run.
"Of course we are disappointed," the MDC secretary general, Welshman Ncube, said. "It’s obvious that the situation is extremely difficult."
Analysts say Mr Tsvangirai is not the figurehead he was four years ago, when the MDC won nearly half of all contested seats in parliamentary elections.
As MDC leaders mull over a boycott of next year’s poll, frustration levels are rising.
"I worry about Zimbabweans who seem to think that the MDC is some kind of Messiah," the social commentator Everjoice Win said. "People don’t quite understand the amount of struggle that is needed."