Zimbabwe Bishops Call for 'Immediate' End to Violence

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Zimbabwe has condemned the widespread violence that followed the country's March 29 presidential election and appealed to political parties to "exercise restraint."

In a statement issued on Thursday, the bishops said that the violence has not only discredited the March election, but is "putting into question the credibility of the presidential run-off elections," scheduled for June 27.

"The reign of violence that has been unleashed on the country, especially in the rural areas and former commercial farming areas, is unacceptable," they said. "Base camps from which militias terrorize defenseless rural populations must be disbanded as a matter of urgency."

The bishops said that people were being taken by force to political "re-orientation" meetings , where they are being told that they voted "wrongly" in the last election and are being given the opportunity to 'correct their mistake'.

The bishops also said that "despicable atrocities" were being committed by both President Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF party as well as the opposition MDC, and that Christians were also getting caught up in the cycle of violence.

"It is sad to see Christians, including Catholics, among the perpetrators of such violence. Where are our Christian principles and values?" the bishops asked.

They said the prevailing animosity will make post-election reconciliation, unity and healing more difficult to achieve.

"We call for a conducive environment that enables people to vote according to their consciences," the bishops stated.

"Hatred, intimidation and violence cannot have the last word in our society."

The church leaders also called for a credible electoral process and appealed to state security organs to "value and protect the life and human rights of every individual." They also urged the de-politicization of the armed and uniformed forces, and asked the African Union and Southern African Development Community to deploy independent monitors and observers throughout Zimbabwe.

They concluded: "Electoral processes and outcomes are not an excuse for breaching God's commandments.

"The sun will still rise on June 28, 2008, well after the elections. May our present conduct help Zimbabwe rise too to assume its rightful place among the nations of the world."

The bishops' appeals came as events took a turn for the worse in Zimbabwe this weekend, with media agencies reporting that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and 11 other MDC members were arrested on Saturday and are currently being held in a police station.

Robert Mugabe has vowed, meanwhile, that the MDC would never rule Zimbabwe.

"We shall never, never accept anything that smells of...the MDC. These pathetic puppets taking over this country? Let's see. That is not going to happen," Mugabe said in a speech at the burial of a former army general on Saturday.