- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) Twenty church pastors marching to protest what they called state-orchestrated political violence were arrested yesterday and held for eight hours, witnesses and protest organizers said.

The pastors, who were wearing clerical garb, marched to police headquarters in Harare to submit a petition protesting the violence and Zimbabwe's strict security laws, which prohibit political protests.

The representatives of the multidenominational National Pastors Conference were waiting to hand in their petition when riot police arrested them, said Brian Kagoro, an official with the reform group Crisis in Zimbabwe.

They were accused of holding an illegal protest under the Public Order and Security Act, the legislation they were protesting, and taken to Harare's Central Police Station, Kagoro said.

All 20 were released after eight hours, said Jonah Gokova with the independent charity Ecumenical Support Services.

Earlier Friday, police questioned a Roman Catholic archbishop they accused of bringing opposition politics into his cathedral.

Archbishop Pius Ncube officiated Thursday at a "prayers for peace" service at the St. Mary's Cathedral in Bulawayo. Victims of alleged assaults and torture by police and militia members spoke at the service, which was monitored by police.Ncube said two officers questioned him at the cathedral office Friday after he refused to meet them last Thursday.

"They said they did not expect issues of a political nature to be brought to church. They were saying it antagonizes people" and the church should protect the government, he said.

But, Archbishop Ncube said, "I am not going to protect a government that has abused people's rights flagrantly and for no reason.

People have been killed and those who killed are running scot free on the streets because they acted on behalf of the government."

Police twice have broken up church-backed protests in Harare this month. On Feb. 14, nearly 100 women, including nuns clutching red roses, were arrested and detained for several hours.A day earlier, police dispersed a group discussing Zimbabwe's deepening political and economic crisis at a church. Several participants were assaulted and detained.The U.S. government has protested the arrest of a U.S. diplomat at that meeting.

Zimbabwe has been wracked by political violence and economic turmoil for three years as President Robert Mugabe's authoritarian government clings to power.

Independent human rights groups have reported at least 200 killings in politically related violence since 2000 and thousands of cases of torture, unlawful arrest, assaults and arson, mainly against opposition supporters.

Few suspects have been arrested.

Since the government started confiscating thousands of white-owned farms in February 2000, the agriculture-based economy has collapsed.

The World Food Program estimates 7.2 million Zimbabweans, more than half the population, face famine.

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