President Emmerson Mnangagwa is set to address the row over a pastoral letter by Catholic bishops on Tuesday, a spokesman said.
The Vatican sent its Zimbabwe ambassador to meet Archbishop Robert Ndlovu, the head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference on Sunday, hours after information minister Monica Mutsvangwa called the bishops “evil-minded” over criticism of the government.
The attack on the bishops drew widespread condemnation, amid calls for Mutsvangwa to be sacked.
Ndavaningi Mangwana, the government spokesman, wrote on Twitter Monday: “Regarding issues around the Pastoral Letter by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference, President Mnangagwa is going to issue a comprehensive statement tomorrow (Tuesday).
The Catholic bishops said in a pastoral letter that the country had a multi-layered crisis, including economic collapse, deepening poverty, corruption and human rights abuses.
“Fear runs down the spine of many of our people today. The crackdown on dissent is unprecedented,” the bishops said in the letter, read out at Catholic churches on Sunday.
“Is this the Zimbabwe we want? To have a different opinion does not mean to be an enemy.”
In response, Mutsvangwa criticised Archbishop Ndlovu, and described the pastoral letter as an “evil message” meant to stoke a “Rwanda-type genocide”.
“His (Ndlovu’s) transgressions acquire a geopolitical dimension as the chief priest of the agenda of regime change that is the hallmark of the post-imperial major Western powers for the last two decades,” Mutsvangwa said in a statement.
Pope Francis’ ambassador to Zimbabwe Archbishop Paolo Rudelli on Sunday paid a solidarity visit on Archbishop Ndlovu.
“The Apostolic Nuncio’s visit was also a symbolic act of solidarity with all the Bishops of Zimbabwe,” the Vatican said in a statement.
Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said the Vatican’s response to the attack on the bishops was a major development.
“When the Vatican’s ambassador personally visits the Archbishop after he was attacked by the government, it represents the Vatican itself criticising the government – in effect, withdrawing God’s respect,” Chan said.
The Catholic bishops have received a stream of solidarity messages since the attack, including from other churches and human rights groups.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, a grouping of 845 churches with a membership of 4.5 million people, said “only the deceitful and malicious can deny these truths” in the Catholic pastoral letter.
“Like Pontius Pilate there may be those who cannot or will not see the truth even when it stares them in the face… They would rather call the silence of the oppressed ‘peace’, the brutality of force ‘justice’ and the abnormality that people struggle with everyday as ‘normal’,” the EFZ said in a statement.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said they were concerned that “the intolerance of President Mnangagwa’s government on dissent and criticism is becoming more despicable every day.”
In a solidarity statement, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) said “the denialism that characterises the Zimbabwe government’s handling of criticism has now become a worrying trend.”
“Pastoral letters, including ‘The March is Not Ended’ are products of prayerful discernment by the college of bishops informed by compassionate listening to the experience of the congregants. Singling out Archbishop Ndlovu can only be viewed as undermining the most asset and character of the church which is its unity,” the ZCC said.
Critics accuse Mnangagwa, who succeeded the late Robert Mugabe following a 2017 military coup, of resorting to authoritarian tactics. Like Mugabe, Mnangagwa says Western countries are funding the opposition to topple his government.