The heads of Roman Catholic orders of priests and nuns in Zimbabwe have expressed concern about political violence here and about hundreds of thousands of workers on white-owned farms who face redundancy through President Robert Mugabe's controversial land resettlement scheme.

In a statement at the weekend, the Conference of Religious Superiors of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, which gathers together 40 heads of religious orders and congregations (nuns and priests), both black and white, said they were "deeply pained" by the suffering of the people in the country. While the clergy recognized the need for the land reform—in which white-owned land is being given to black Zimbabweans—the exercise was now part of a "political power game," the Catholic leaders said.

Mugabe's government is pressing ahead with the scheme under a fast-track resettlement program that the Supreme Court has ruled illegal.

The program casts doubt on the future of more than 450,000 farm workers employed by whites. Most of the workers are from neighboring Mozambique, Zambia, and Malawi.

The Catholic leaders said: "We are in agreement that our people should possess more productive land, that the land be shared among our people in a more equitable way. Yet we are very concerned that the fast-track land distribution inflicts untold misery on the farm laborers and their families who are made redundant."

The government intends to acquire at least 3,000 white-owned farms as part of the resettlement scheme. However, the program has been criticized for failing to provide training and title deeds to the resettled black farmers, another point raised by the Catholic leaders.

Since July last year, the government has resettled about 70,000 poor black families on three million hectares of land.

"The resettled people face great hardships; they appear to be pawns in a political power game without any secure land tenure of the land allocated to them," said the Catholic leaders. "Land reform, which is for the common good of the nation, needs a proper legal framework and a well-prepared program of action."

The Conference of Religious Superiors also deplored violence and pressure on the judiciary that resulted in the early retirement of leading white judge, Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay.

In the run-up to last June's parliamentary elections, 31 people were killed while hundreds more were assaulted in political violence.

"This is no longer a free country," the Conference of Religious Superiors said. "People live in abject fear of violence, crime and threats. The rule of law is no longer respected, terror and intimidation go unpunished. We wish to back the judges and law officials who defend the constitutional rights of citizens of Zimbabwe."

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With the tacit support of the government, bands of "war veterans" are running a campaign of terror to push whites off their farms. They have already invaded 1,700 white-owned farms, resulting in the deaths of six white farmers. The most recent victim was Gloria Olds, a 72-year-old farmer in Nyamadlhovu, about 500 kilometers south of Harare, who was shot dead by unknown gunmen two weeks ago.

The Catholic superiors said that violence could not bring justice. "The God whom we serve is the God of light and truth. In his name we protest against lies and deceptions. Those who bear responsibility for the suffering of the people need to know that they will be accountable for their actions. The God of 'widows and orphans' warns them: 'Take your wrong-doing out of my sight. Cease doing evil. Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow'" (Isaiah 1:16-17).

At the same time, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, said on 16 March in Pretoria, South Africa, that she believed Zimbabwe was in "deep trouble." She expressed concern about the erosion of the law in the troubled southern African nation.

She told a South African newspaper, the Star: "Zimbabwe is in deep trouble at the moment. … if a country sees the crumbling of the fundamental integrity of the rule of law, the administration of justice, the integrity of the judges, the police, those in uniform, then that is the beginning of a terrible cycle of violence and disintegration."

She told AFP that as an Irish citizen, she understood the plight of Zimbabwe's landless majority. "Nevertheless, what I really worry about acutely at the moment is the erosion of all of that and the fact that there is an undermining of the fundamental integrity of the rule of law. That is the worst thing that can happen in a country after a system has been built up over a number of years so that people feel protected and secure under the law."

Related Elsewhere

Other media coverage of the Conference of Religious Superiors' statement includes that of the BBC and The Independent of Johannesburg, South Africa.

More background and media coverage of the continuing land dispute can be found at the BBC,, and Yahoo's full coverage.

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In addition to today's related story, "Evangelicals Attempt to Defuse Crises in Zimbabwe," our earlier coverage of Christianity in Zimbabwe includes:

Clergyman Forced to Leave Zimbabwe After Criticizing Mugabe Government | Authorities revoke work permit of Presbyterian missionary who accused the government being involved in killings. (Mar. 19, 2001)

Zimbabwe Church Officials Tell Mugabe to Respect Judiciary and Rule of Law | Catholics, Baptists, and others criticize presidential pressure on Supreme Court. (Mar. 19, 2001)

Churches Call for Inquiry Into Zimbabwe's Pre-Election Violence | "In the meantime, accept the election results" says Zimbabwe Council of Churches (July 14, 2000)

Zimbabwe President's Party Refuses to Join Church-Sponsored Talks to End Violence | At least 10 dead in country's escalating political violence (May 2, 2000)

Evangelicals Abstain from Zimbabwe's Interfaith Body | Christian group opposes blending of Christianity and traditional African religion. (Apr. 18, 2000)

Church Council Urges Swift Resolution of Zimbabwe's Row over White Farms | Land redistribution must be done "in a systematic, just and transparent manner" (Mar. 23, 2000)

Zimbabwe's Black Anglican Priests Claim Exclusion at White Ceremonies | Four priests resign, alleging widespread racism (Nov. 24, 1999)

Gun-Toting Missionaries Given Light Sentences (Nov. 15, 1999)

Missionaries or Mercenaries? (May 24, 1999)