Christian leaders are openly denouncing Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe for placing millions at risk of starvation for the sake of partisan politics.

Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube has lambasted the government for barring the Britain-based Catholic Fund for Overseas Development from providing 1,000 metric tons of corn for Bulawayo and Masvingo. The archbishop said that in late October Mugabe's ruling party traded food for votes during the Insiza district election for a seat in the national parliament.

"The government is using food as a weapon," Ncube said. "They want people to be hungry so that they conform."

A month earlier, Zimbabwe's Roman Catholic bishops had urged the government to "quickly depoliticize" the procurement and distribution of food. The main governing body of the Lutheran World Federation has denounced "any use of humanitarian assistance as a political tool."

Aid agencies are in a delicate situation. To feed the hungry, they must avoid provoking the government. The government has full control of where and how aid is distributed, and officials have taken as long as three years to process an aid application.

In October, Mugabe lashed out at charities and international aid agencies for "meddling with our national affairs." He banned Save the Children from distributing food aid in one district. In November, the United Nations World Food Program pulled out of Insiza, charging that its food aid was going only to Mugabe's supporters.

Aid agencies say government officials have allowed black veterans of the country's 1970s liberation war to take over white-owned farms. The conflict has taken farmland out of production, making the famine worse. The U.S. Agency for International Development says 6 million of the nation's 11.3 million people could starve. USAID's Andrew Natsios said sending aid to nongovernmental agencies and "church groups" is essential to save lives.

World Relief President Clive Calver called Zimbabwe's situation "ghastly" after a visit last fall.

"This famine facing Zimbabwe is the worst one seen in years," Calver said. "This one dwarfs the Ethiopian and Sudanese famines."

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