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Tensions Rise Between Zimbabwean Government And Church Critics

The Zimbabwean government has expressed its displeasure at mounting activism by church leaders who have taken President Robert Mugabe to task for the poverty engulfing the country and for a rising tide of violence against his opposition.

Police in Chivhu, a town in east-central Zimbabwe, detained a Roman Catholic priest overnight for questioning from Thursday to Friday after he read a pastoral letter from the Zimbabwe Conference of Catholic Bishops from his pulpit last Sunday.

Sources said Father Xavier Mukupo of Gwandachibvuwa Mission in Chivhu was released Friday evening with no charges brought against him.

Since late last month, Catholic churches throughout Zimbabwe have been posting and publicly reading a pastoral letter entitled "God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed" which is highly critical of the Mugabe government. Drafted by Zimbabwe's Catholic bishops, it told Harare it must stop state-sponsored harassment of the opposition and warned President Mugabe that he could face a mass uprising by the restive population.

“Zimbabweans are angry, and their anger is erupting into open rebellion," stated the bishops, deploring "state arrests, detentions, banning orders, beatings and torture, and vote rigging,” urging Harare to draft a constitution that meets people's needs.

National director Alex Chaumba of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace told reporter Carole Gombakomba of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the pastoral letter is in such great demand throughout the country that all 8,000 copies printed so far in Shona, Ndebele and English have been distributed.

This week a senior government official accused churches of meddling in politics and sowing disunity under the cover of prayer meetings. The state-run Herald newspaper quoted Economic Development Deputy Minister Aguy Georgias as saying that instead of preaching hope clerics were spreading despair about the economic situation.

He said church leaders should not sacrifice the pulpit to political expediency. Churches working under the banner of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign recently held a prayer meeting attended by some leaders of the political opposition.

Baptist Pastor Ray Motsi of the Bulawayo-based Christian Alliance, a member of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, told reporter Jonga Kandemiiri that preachers cannot ignore politics when the country has fallen into a moral crisis.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...