Using the state-controlled Herald newspaper, President Robert Mugabe has told Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe that they have embarked upon "a dangerous course" by issuing a pastoral letter blaming him for the current national crisis.
Mugabe's less-than-veiled threat came last week, and church activists say that it has been followed up by raids and menaces against them - though whether these are a direct result of the press statement is not known.
The national political controversy has deepened with the bishops' backing for a move by the Australian parliament to stop a cricket tour of Zimbabwe in protest against the denial of basic rights.
Meanwhile, the Herald accuses the bishops of hypocrisy in their stand, and has tried to line up other church leaders as backing the beleagured regime via a "national reconciliation process" -which opponents say Mugabe is manipulating.
A priest in neighbouring South Africa who is observing the situation in Zimbabwe told the ZENIT news agency: "I can confirm only that we have received those threats via the media."
ZENIT also quotes a Christian human rights supporter as adding: "The state is drastically restricting the aid campaigns of the Catholic Church.
"According to official statistics, 3 million people, out of a population of 13 million, have left the country. … Unofficial estimates say the figure is already 5 million. More and more people want to leave, for Botswana, South Africa, even for Australia and New Zealand.
"There is no open resistance against the regime; the people are too afraid for that."
The priest went on: "Zimbabweans trust the Catholic Church, and the churches are full. On Fridays there are regular prayers and fasting campaigns for the country.
"Economic sanctions are hitting the ordinary people and the poorest people very hard. Inflation has now reached between 2,200% and 3,000%, while unemployment stands at around 80%."
"Five months ago, I paid 11,000 Zimbabwe dollars for a chicken; a month ago they cost 50,000 and now they cost more than 100,000. "People are dying of malnutrition."
However outspoken Bulawayo Archbishop Pius Ncube has said that, though the bishops' recent statements are welcome, they have not been strong enough in the past. People have been cowered into submission by an authoritarian regime for too long, he claims.