Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe told Roman Catholic bishops who issued a letter blaming him for his country's political and economic turmoil they had chosen "a dangerous path," and church officials said on Friday a priest had been briefly detained for passing the pastoral message on to his congregation.
Police later on Friday arrested two prominent lawyers who have specialized in human rights issues, colleagues said.
Mugabe, in extracts of an interview published in the state Herald newspaper on Friday, declared the pastoral letter "political nonsense" and said the government would treat the country's nine bishops, all signatories to the letter, as what he called "political entities" and "deal with them accordingly."
Church officials said since the pastoral letter was distributed across the country to coincide with Easter services, state agents visited Catholic churches and questioned worshippers over their understanding of the bishops' message.
The five-page pastoral letter called on Mugabe to end oppression in the country and allow for democratic reform. It also said violent confrontation and deepening economic hardships was pushing the nation close to a flash point.
The arrested priest and a member of his congregation were released without charge after spending 24 hours in jail last month, said Father Oskar Wermter of the Catholic social communications secretariat in Harare.
It was the first reported arrest of a priest on political grounds in recent years. The priest had evidently given prominence to the letter in services in northern Harare.
Wermter said Mugabe's response to the pastoral letter, as reported in the Herald, was to be expected.
"What is surprising is that he kept silent for so long. People have reacted to the letter very positively and maybe that is riling him," Wermter said.
Opposition activists and civic leaders along with independent journalists accused of giving credence to calls for "regime change" in Zimbabwe have frequently been arrested and assaulted in efforts to silence them.
Attorney Sternford Moyo said police arrested lawyers Alec Muchadehama and Andrew Makoni at their Harare offices late on Friday and held them at the main Harare police jail, allegedly for attempting to pervert the course of justice.
The two lawyers are currently representing a group of jailed opposition activists who have denied involvement in a series of petrol bombings since early March.
The defense team has argued some of the evidence against the activists, who face life imprisonment on terrorism charges, has been faked by authorities.
Arrests on Friday afternoon are common, preventing suspects having access to courts until after the weekend.
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