African Anglican bishops support Mugabe

Harare, Zimbabwe - African Anglican bishops have issued a message to Zimbabweans that was broadly supportive of the government, sharply contrasting with an earlier call from Catholic leaders for President Robert Mugabe to step down.

An Anglican pastoral letter released to coincide with this week's independence celebrations acknowledged Zimbabwe's economic crisis "rendered the ordinary Zimbabwean unable to make ends meet."

The 14 Anglican bishops blamed the worsening plight of poor Zimbabweans largely on Western economic sanctions.

"So-called targeted sanctions aimed at the leadership of the country have affected the poor Zimbabweans who have borne the brunt of sanctions," the bishops said after a meeting of the central African Episcopal Synod.

Western governments dispute that claim, arguing targeted sanctions on Zimbabwean assets abroad and travel restrictions only affect rulers and policymakers. The sanctions were imposed to protest Mugabe's human rights record.

Investment and foreign loans to Zimbabwe have dried up in six years of political and economic turmoil following the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms that began in 2000.

Even with the sanctions, the European Union and the United States are still among the nation's top five trading partners.

Zimbabwe's nine Catholic bishops marked Easter with an unprecedented call on Mugabe to end oppression and leave office through democratic reform or face a mass revolt.

Their pastoral letter accused the ruling elite of racism and corruption and fomenting lawlessness and violence to cling to power and wealth, factors they said led to the economic meltdown. The letter decried state-orchestrated intimidation, beatings and torture. Predicting further bloodshed, it said the country had reached a flash point.

The Anglican church has been traditionally muted in its criticism of the government, with its leaders generally toeing the ruling party line.

Prominent among the signatories to Friday's Anglican letter was Harare Bishop Nolbert Kunonga, frequently praised in the state media for his "progressive sentiment." Kunonga has denounced some black clergy as "Uncle Toms" and puppets of whites and Britain and the United States for their criticism of Mugabe.

The opposition has denied government charges it mounted a campaign of violence, alleging eight petrol bombings since early March were stage-managed by state security agents, possibly using disgruntled opposition youths.

Demonstrations and a national strike in the past month have been thwarted largely by the heavy deployment of police and troops. Police crushed a prayer meeting March 11 the government said was a political protest banned under sweeping security laws. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and other leading pro-democracy activists were hospitalized after being assaulted by police while under arrest.