Mugabe urges church leaders to work with him

Harare, Zimbabwe - President Robert Mugabe on Thursday encouraged church leaders to "come forward with solutions" to Zimbabwe's deepening problems, state media reported.

During a long-awaited meeting with a delegation of church leaders, Mugabe said that the church and state have had disagreements but must "openly criticise each other", according to state television.

"There may be differences. There may be areas where we don't see things alike, but we discuss them and openly say them, and openly criticise each other, but not for the benefit of others - for our own benefit, so we can mend our ways where things have got to be mended," Mugabe said.

"That is why I think this meeting is very important."

The talks took place amid Zimbabwe's deepening economic and social problems.

The annual inflation rate is now running at more than 1 000 percent and is expected to keep rising. More than 80 percent of Zimbabweans live below the poverty line, forcing many young people to plot ways of leaving the country.

Peter Nemapare, head of the religious delegation and president of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), said he was "thrilled" by Thursday's meeting, reports said.

"It has been one of the most wonderful meetings that I have ever attended with the president," he told state television.

He said one of the things discussed had been how the church can help to get "this country out of this muck which we are in, which has been imposed on us by outside forces".

Mugabe and his government maintain that Zimbabwe is under "illegal" sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States, because of a controversial programme of seizures of white-owned land launched in 2000.