The archbishop of Zimbabwe?s second largest city, Bulawayo, says the church in Zimbabwe is doing its moral duty when it criticizes the Mugabe government for the political and economic problems afflicting the country.  In a pastoral letter last month, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops? Conference said economic and political repression by the Mugabe government had left Zimbabwe in extreme danger. In response, President Mugabe accused the bishops of turning political and that they would be dealt with as political entities.

But Archbishop Pius Ncube told VOA that the church in Zimbabwe has a long history of defending the rights of the poor.

?Twenty-seven years ago before he was president, already the Catholic bishops were directing the prime minister, Ian Smith, telling him that he was racist, and that he must rectify the situation and open political participation and the economy to all the races. During that time, Mugabe was happy that the Church was speaking up for freedom because he was not yet in power. Now as soon as he?s in power, he?s behaving exactly the same way as Ian Smith did. Ian Smith was saying the bishop must preach the Bible and not dabble in politics. We are only defending the rights of the poor that they have a right to be respected. They should not be tortured and beaten up and broken up,? he said.

President Mugabe had accused Zimbabwe?s Catholic bishops of turning political and threatened to deal with them as political entities. Archbishop Ncube said the Mugabe government is already using other tactics against the church.

?For instance, we have quite a lot of missionaries, and they need their permits for them to live in Zimbabwe. Now they have been denying permits to some of our missionaries. Some of our missionaries have to leave the country. They try and make life a bit unpleasant for us,? he said.

Archbishop Ncube denied that the pastoral letter criticizing the Mugabe government had caused some polarization among some bishops and priests. On the contrary, he said it was well received.

?Generally, people say that this statement was overdue and that it was very good that we have spoken. You know that certain elements, that is, certain people are linked with this government, and they get4 benefits from the government. And therefore they don?t react,? Archbishop Ncube said.

In criticizing the bishops? pastoral letter, Zimbabwe?s minister of local government, public works and urban development Cde Ignatius Chombo reportedly said imperialist agents were using the Roman Catholic Church through selected bishops to criticize President Mugabe.

But Archbishop Ncube said the government had always branded its critics as enemies of the state.

?As soon as you tell the truth then you are a rubber stamp and a puppet of the Western world, and this is very sad because on the African continent there is a lot of violation of human rights. And the African leaders must learn to take care of their people. That?s all we are asking for. They can earn their luxury; they can earn their salaries; they can earn their benefits as leaders. But please let them take of their own people. Their own people are being fed by the so-called imperialists,? he said.