Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe's latest attack on Catholic bishops, in which he accused them of lying about the nation's dire social and economic situation, was a sign that the relationship between the two will continue to be difficult, observers have said.
"The utterances show that he no longer cares about relations with the bishops who have been bold enough to stand up to him," Lovemore Madhuku, a political commentator from the University of Zimbabwe told ENInews. "[Mugabe] knows it's almost impossible to get the mainstream churches to follow him," Madhuku added.
In his latest tirade at the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference on 21 April 2011, Mugabe said the bishops spread lies about the country's situation.
"There are other so-called bishops who fall under what is called the bishops' conference who are always telling lies, no truth at all," Mugabe said at the opening of a conference hall in the town of Masvingo, south of Harare, for an apostolic sect, the Zion Christian Church. He praised the leaders of the sect while attacking his critics.
"Look what these bishops of my own church are doing, always attacking me every year. They say our government oppresses the people when the truth is that the bishops don't understand the wishes of the majority of the people of this country," said Mugabe, who was raised Roman Catholic and educated in church schools.
Joseph Tanonoka Whande, a columnist in the privately-owned Daily News said Mugabe's conduct was not consistent with his Christian background and urged believers to stand up against the three-decade ruler. "I cannot understand Mugabe's behaviour against the church and how he reconciles his beliefs with what he is doing," Whande said in a column on 21 April.
"It's no longer just politics. It is now the perpetration of evil. We cannot continue to stand and watch as Christians are abused by thieves and murderers who have ruined a nation so much blessed by God," Whande wrote.
Previously, the Catholic bishops, in a February pastoral letter, deplored violence by supporters of Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriot Front (Zanu-PF) party. "We are concerned about politically-motivated violence," the letter read in part. "We urge our political leaders to desist from intimidating and mistreating members of the public, the media and civic communities and uphold human rights."
Mugabe's attack on the clergy last week came days after police detained a Catholic priest, Fr. Marko Mkandla after he gave a sermon at a memorial service for victims of a government crackdown on dissidents in the 1980s that was believed to have left over 10,000 people dead.
On 9 April, riot police broke up a church service in the capital, Harare, beat up and arrested 14 people including priests attending the service. It was held to commemorate a similar prayer rally in 2007 which was stopped by the police who beat several people including Morgan Tsvangirai, now prime minister in a power-sharing government with Mugabe. An activist from Tsvangirai's party was killed as police used live fire to disperse the congregation.
After falling out with the mainstream church, Mugabe has sought the support of apostolic sects. Last year he attended an annual pilgrimage of one of the sects and appeared in pictures wearing the church's white robes and wooden rod. On that occasion he railed against gays and lesbians and urged the adherents to oppose rights groups seeking to have gay rights in Zimbabwe's new constitution.
"This is a strategy to gain votes because members of these sects tend to follow what their leaders tell them," Madhuku said.
Despite the strained relations, churches still play a leading role in Zimbabwe, providing low-fee education and health services as the country battles to recover from a nearly decade-long economic crisis which saw annual inflation at one time peak to 231 million percent. In addition, church hospitals are the major health service providers to the poor as government hospitals still lack essential drugs and are often short-staffed.
[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.]