A showdown loomed Saturday in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, between authorities and civic activists who called an opposition prayer meeting over police objections.
Police banned the prayer meeting scheduled under the banner of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, an umbrella for church, civic and political opposition groups. It was called at Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Makokoba, a populous suburb.
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said the gathering had been declared illegal. He said the Save Zimbabwe Campaign had failed to obtain permission from the police.
Slated to address the prayer meeting were Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube, a longtime critic of President Robert Mugabe, and the heads of both factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara.
The state-controlled Herald newspaper said U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell helped to organize the prayer meeting. But organizers dismissed this contention.
Police were deployed in force Friday in Zimbabwe's second largest city.
Prayer meetings are a sensitive subject with authorities. Authorities blocked one called March 11 in the Harare suburb of Highfield, leading to a confrontation between police and protesters in which an MDC activist, Gift Tandare, was shot dead. A number of opposition officials including Tsvangirai were arrested and badly beaten, drawing international protests and triggering a state crackdown on the opposition.
Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the government considers the prayer meeting to be a disguised rally and would not let it take place because authorization was not obtained.
Speaking for the churches involved, Baptist Pastor Ray Motsi said provincial security officials summoned organizers Thursday and demanded to know their intentions.
Motsi said organizers had received no formal notice from authorities that the meeting has been banned, therefore they intended to go ahead with it despite the verbal notification from Bulawayo police that the gathering had been banned.
MDC officials vowed to take part in the prayer meeting despite the insistence by police that such a meeting not involve political parties.
Spokesman Nelson Chamisa of the Tsvangirai-led MDC faction said political leaders were entitled to take part in religious gatherings like anyone else.
While the Saturday prayer meeting was up in the air, hundreds of Bulawayo residents participated in a less-politicized prayer meeting Thursday evening which involved two Catholic bishops from South Africa, as correspondent Netsai Mlilo reported.