HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's Catholic bishops have accused President Robert Mugabe and his officials of running a bad and corrupt government and called for radical political reforms to avoid a revolt in the southern African state.
In a pastoral letter posted on church notice boards during the Easter weekend, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference said economic hardship and political repression had led to widespread anger, leaving the nation "in extreme danger".
"The reasons for the anger are many, among them bad governance and corruption," they said in their strongest attack on Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party in years. The Catholic Church is the biggest Christian denomination in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe is a Catholic and attends church regularly.
The bishops also condemned the violent March 11 crackdown on anti-Mugabe activists, which forced the country's main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and others to seek medical treatment for injuries they say they sustained in police custody.
The reports of their beatings prompted sharp protests from the international community.
In their letter, the Catholic leaders said black Zimbabweans were fighting for political rights in almost the same way as during British colonial rule and said Mugabe had adopted unjust and oppressive laws inherited at independence in 1980.
"In order to avoid further bloodshed and avert a mass uprising, the nation needs a new people-driven constitution that will guide a democratic leadership chosen in free and fair elections," they said.
ZANU-PF has already endorsed Mugabe, 83, as its presidential candidate in elections expected to be held next year. Opponents fear that it will be a repeat of past polls, which they say were rigged on behalf of Mugabe.
A once prosperous southern African nation, Zimbabwe is mired in a deep economic crisis, marked by inflation of more than 1,700 percent, unemployment of about 80 percent, increasing poverty and chronic shortages of food, fuel and foreign currency.
Mugabe's critics blame the crisis on mismanagement, including a controversial programme to seize white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks. The policy has sharply reduced the number of white farmers and coincided with a sharp drop in agricultural production.
Mugabe, the country's sole ruler since independence, blames the problems on sabotage by Western nations, including Britain.
The Catholic bishops said government mismanagement and interference in the private sector were partly to blame for Zimbabwe's economic woes, adding that the country's health, education and social services systems were in tatters.
They said efforts to turn around Zimbabwe's economy would remain a dream until corruption was tackled boldly and leaders started to serve the people justly.
"If our young people see their leaders habitually engaging in acts and words which are hateful, disrespectful, racist, corrupt, lawless, unjust, greedy, dishonest and violent in order to cling to the privileges of power and wealth, it is highly likely that many of them will behave exactly in the same manner," they said.