Catholic bishops in Southern Africa have warned that conditions are not yet fit for elections in Zimbabwe after the bloody presidential run-off election which left scores of people dead.
"Conditions in the country are emphatically not conducive to elections in 2011. We strongly believe that holding elections at this stage would be dangerously premature," said the group. The bishops are from Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Sao Tome and Principe, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The statement was prepared at an Inter-regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa held in Pretoria, South Africa, last December and released on 22 February.
The bishops said Zimbabwe's voters' roll had not been updated for years while cases of violence had increased following the announcement of possible elections later this year. They also said freedom of association and of the media was severely restricted and that the nation was in the grip of extreme fear. There are increasing signs of intimidation and violence as the election campaign has built up, they said.
Their statement came after Zimbabwe's long-ruling president, Robert Mugabe, said he will call for elections later this year with or without reforms agreed to in a pact with his strongest rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now Prime Minister. Tsvangirai and Mugabe are in a shaky power-sharing government that was formed in February 2009.
Zimbabwe's last elections in June 2008 were marred by violence which saw the deaths of more than 300 supporters of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party.
Following the disputed elections, a regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, persuaded Mugabe and Tsvangirai to form a powersharing government to avoid a descent into full-fledged conflict and mend an economic crisis that featured hyper-inflation.
Under the pact, the two political rivals agreed to reforms including drafting a new constitution and changing electoral and media laws to ensure free and fair elections in future.
The work of the compromise government has been characterised by fighting over the allocation of key government posts while the drive to collect people's views for the new constitution was disrupted several time by violent clashes between supporters of the two main political parties.
Last month, scores of supporters of Tsvangirai's party sought refuge in churches after they were attacked and forced out of their homes by militant supporters of Mugabe's party.
[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews, formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]