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Last Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Mugabe warns bishops of 'danger'
President Robert Mugabe
President Mugabe blames his problems on the West
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has told Roman Catholic bishops they are on a "dangerous path" if they become too political, state media reports.

He said they would be treated as politicians and not spiritual leaders.

He was responding to an open letter published over Easter, in which they warned of a mass uprising unless free elections are held.

"Many people in Zimbabwe are angry, and their anger is now erupting into open revolt," the letter said.

Mr Mugabe, a Catholic, said he would have told the bishops they were talking "nonsense" if he had seen the letter in church.

"Once [the bishops] turn political, we regard them as no longer spiritual and our relations with them would be conducted as if we are dealing with political entities and this is quite a dangerous path they have chosen for themselves," he is reported as saying in The Herald newspaper.

'Biblical oppression'

In March, a prayer meeting attended by opposition leaders and activists was broken up by police, leaving two people dead.

Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo Pius Ncube

Scores of activists, including Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, were arrested and assaulted in police custody.

Mr Mugabe said they had "deserved" their beatings for ignoring police warnings that the meeting was illegal.

The bishops' letter compared the suffering in Zimbabwe to the biblical oppression of the Jewish slaves under the pharaohs in Egypt.

"In order to avoid further bloodshed and avert a mass uprising, the nation needs a new people-driven constitution that will guide a democratic leadership chosen in free and fair elections," it said.

Earlier this year, the outspoken Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, called for Zimbabweans to take to the streets in order to tell Mr Mugabe to step down.

He said he was willing to stand in front of "blazing guns" if necessary.

More Zimbabweans are Catholics than belong to any other religious group.

Zimbabwe has the world's highest annual rate of inflation - 2,200% - and only one person in five is in full-time work.

Mr Mugabe blames his problems on a Western plot to remove him from power.

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