Abel Muzorewa, who is both prime minister and United Methodist bishop of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, can expect little support from fellow churchmen in this country in his quest for American approval of his new biracial government.
Muzorewa, 54, is expected to arrive here tonight, in response to an invitation from Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.), to press for diplomatic recognition and the lifting of economic sanctions called for by the United Nations more than a decade ago to bring down the white-dominated Rhodesian regime of former premier Ian Smith.
Only a couple of years ago, leaders of American mainline denominations were lionizing Muzorewa as a liberator in the best biblical tradition, the Moses of his people.
But for some the compromises he has struck with Smith, plus his government's continued closeness with the neighboring Smith African regime have brought doubts and disenchantment. In the eyes of many American church leaders including some of his fellow Methodists, Muzorewa has moved from liberator to co-conspirator.
Thus the National Council of Churches, meeting only days after the April elections that made Muzorewa prime minister, condemned that process as undemocratic, asserting that the election "does not represent an authentic transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority (since) the judiciary, the civil service, the military and the police will remain under the control of the white minority."
The NCC resolution also complained that the conditions of martial law imposed on large portions of Rhodesia and the banning of the movements which fromed the Patriotic Front tended to preclude a free election.
Under these circumstances, the resolution continued, the United States "should not lift sanctions nor extend diplomatic recognition" to the Muzorewa government.
When Congress began debating the lifting of Rhodesian sanctions last month, the NCC's Washington office communicated the organization's action to every member, as well as to President Carter.
Similar stands have been taken by the United Presbyterian Church's General Assembly and by U.S. leaders of a pan-Lutheran organization.
The U.S. Catholic Conference sent a letter of commendation to Carter for his decision not to lift sanctions. The agency of the American Catholic hierarchy also sent its expert on Africa, the Rev. Rollins Lambert, to testify before House and Senate committees on why sanctions should not be lifted.
The Washington Office on Africa, a coalition of nine church and two secular organizations, not only supports continuation of sanctions but has implored Carter not to meet with Muzorewa when he visits here.
The 9.8-million-member United Methodist Church is deeply divided.
Methodist loyalties run deep, and Muzorewa heads not only a government but also a church planted by Methodist missionaries and nourished by Methodist dollars. Members do not easily forget the accounts their denominational journals carried only a few years ago of the courageous defiance of segregation laws by Muzorewa, the first African to head the Rhodesian church.
But the same racial sensitivity that prompted the church to move control of its African outposts from white missionaries to men like Muzorewa (a process hastened by anti-imperialist revolutions here and there) has prompted close examination of the Muzorewa regime.
In an editorial commenting on the Rhodesian election, the denomination's highly respected mission magazine, New World Outlook, said that "the election bears no effect on continuing white control of such important areas as the civil service, police and judiciary in Rhodesia" and that the "machinery is set up to give whites virtual veto power over any significant changes in the country."
Therefore, the journal reasoned, "Reluctantly - because, after all, a brother United Methodist bishop whom we greatly admire has been elected prime minister - we must conclude that it would not be wise for the United States to drop sanctions at this time."
The quasi-independent United Methodist Reporter, on the other hand, called editoriaaly for lifting of sanctions "to give the new government every chance to prove itself."
Immediately after Muzorewa's April election, the United Methodist Council of Bishops sent a message to their African colleague expressing "affectionate greetings and prayerful encouragement for your leadership in Zimbabwe toward true majority rule and achievement of liberty and justice for all."
The church's black caucus, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, meeting late last month, adopted a resolution strongly opposing the lifting of sanctions "until there is a clear majority rule" in Rhodesia.
Other black church groups have expressed similar attitudes. The interdenominational Black Theology Project called the Muzorewa government "white minority rule in blackface."
The Methodist Board of Global Ministries in New York, probably the most powerful unit in the denomination, has taken no stand on the sanctions/recognition question. But the board's growing disenchantment with Muzorewa is partially reflected in the fact that earlier this year the board's Africa secretary, the Rev. Isaac Bivens, allocated a $4,000 grant to the New York office of a Muzorewa political rival, the Zimbabwe African National Union. Officially the purpose of the grant was "to help United Methodists understand the nature of the struggle in Southern Africa."
The church's Washington-based Board of Church and Society has gone on record against lifting sanctions. "It would really jeopardize the efforts of the United States and Britain to improve the situation," said the Rev. Herman Will.
A number of the church's regional conferences around the country adopted resolutions at their spring meetings asking for the lifting of sanctions. Will feels this viewpoint is in the majority in the church, "but there is a minority, a well-informed minority who are concerned that [Muzorewa] present more of an African image . . . that he asserts himself more as an African leader and dissociate himself from South Africa."
There is also concern among Methodist in this country, Will said, "about his adminstering United Methodist affairs along with his role as prime minister and as defense minister."
The question, Will said, is not just who is minding the church while Muzorewa is preoccupied with affaris of state, but is even more sensitive: "If the ministers of the church are divided in their [political] sympathies, as they surely must be, you have a problem with a bishop who is also head of the government."
Will pointed out that at least one pastor, the Rev. Caanan Banana, imprisoned for his political views nearly 18 months ago by Smith's government, is still in jail.
At least one attempt to intercede with Muzorewa on Banana's behalf was rebuffed, according to the Rev. Philip Wogeman, head of Wesley Theological Seminary here, where Banana was a student for two years.
"I realize there are a lot of compromise involved in that [Rhodesian government] situation, and Muzorewa will have to do a lot of things they didn't teach us about in seminary," Wogeman said. "But I am not personally able to support the Muzorewa government as long as Caanan is in prison - and I would like to support that government." CAPTION: Picture, ABEL MUZOREWA . . . bishop and prime minister