After police invoked security laws to ban open-air prayer meetings in some parts of the country, a Zimbabwean church group has said that freedom to worship in the southern African country is being infringed in the weeks before a presidential election run-off in June.
"We were told last week that churches are no longer allowed to hold prayer meetings in the open except on church premises," Pastor Useni Sibanda, a spokesperson for the group called Churches in Bulawayo, told Ecumenical News International on 20 May.
Churches in Bulawayo is a loose coalition of congregations in Zimbabwe's second-biggest city. "In the past there were no restrictions on where churches could hold meetings, and for us this is actually an infringement on our right to freedom of worship," Sibanda said.
Zimbabwe held local, parliamentary and presidential elections on 29 March, as a result of which President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party lost its majority in parliament. According to the official results, none of the four presidential candidates managed to get the majority vote required to avoid a second round.
Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, are to contest the runoff poll on 27 June.
Churches in Bulawayo is among Christian groups that are openly critical of Mugabe. "The police and the government should keep their hands off the church. It's not their domain," said Sibanda.
Members of the church group are providing shelter and looking after families displaced by a wave of politically-motivated violence that has broken out in parts of the country following the March elections.
Under the Public Order and Security Act, passed ahead of the 2002 presidential elections, organisations have to seek clearance from the local police commander to hold rallies or to stage marches.
The law mainly targets rights groups and political parties, while religious and trades union gatherings have been exempted and did not require authorisation from the police.
Still, authorities have denounced some faith-based groups, such as Churches in Bulawayo and another organization called the Christian Alliance, both of which are openly critical of Mugabe's government.
Critics say the security law has been used to suppress opposition to Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since the southern African country gained independence in 1980.
In March 2007, riot police beat up several people including opposition leader Tsvangirai, and gunned down an opposition activist as officers broke up a prayer rally convened by a coalition of church and opposition rights groups.
Meanwhile more than 100 women and at least 40 children were taking refuge at the YWCA of Harare to escape violence and intimidation increases, the young women's Christian group reported in Geneva. A YWCA representative reported on 16 May, "A young widow arrived here after spending 10 days hiding in the bush with her baby."
The YWCA said recent reports from Zimbabwe have stated that thousands of families had been displaced and at least 800 homes burned down. "More than 20 opposition activists have died from injuries sustained in such attacks, which have recently escalated to shootings," said the YWCA which has its world headquarters in Geneva.
The YWCA said that women and children are particularly vulnerable during fragile political situations and "women in Zimbabwe are already bearing the brunt of violence and unrest".
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]