Harare (AFP) - Zimbabwe's government has accused the head of a Catholic bishops congress of stoking division and seeking to create a "genocide" after the group spoke out against alleged rights abuses and economic woes.
On Friday, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference (ZCBC) issued an unusually strong letter deploring the thwarting of anti-government protests on July 31.
The bishops denounced the "unprecedented" crackdown on dissent and weighed in on Zimbabwe's long-standing social and economic crisis, which the government vehemently denies.
In a statement late Saturday, Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said the letter had been written under the "evil-minded" leadership of ZCBC president Archbishop Robert Ndlovu.
Mutsvangwa accused Ndlovu, a member of Zimbabwe's Ndebele minority group, of "fanning the psychosis of tribal victimisation" and sowing "sins of collective guilt" among the Shona majority.
She likened the archbishop to Athanase Seromba, a Rwandan priest who was found guilty of crimes against humanity for facilitating the killing of Tutsis during the 1994 genocide.
"Ndlovu is inching to lead the Zimbabwe Catholic congregation into the darkest dungeons of the Rwanda-type genocide," Mutsvangwa said, adding that the letter sought to revive the "perennial vices of division".
Zimbabwe's Catholic Lawyers Guild said it was "deeply concerned" by the "vicious tribal attack" on Ndlovu and reiterated the bishops' unease about "the crisis in Zimbabwe".
In a statement on Sunday, they demanded "an assurance that no harm will befall the bishops on account of the pastoral letter".
'Incendiary hate speech'
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration has come under fire over its growing crackdown on dissent, including detentions, assaults and intimidation.
The southern African country's economy has also been on a downturn for more than a decade, with a recent surge in hyperinflation and shortages of fuel.
But the government again on Saturday denied there was a crisis, even as official statistics showed inflation soaring to almost 840 percent.
Mnangagwa has implemented policies "that result in a robust economy" and has kept the country "commendably stable", the government said in a statement.
At least 20 demonstrators were arrested for taking part in banned protests against alleged state corruption and economic hardship on July 31.
All have been charged with inciting public violence and released on bail.
The Law Society of Zimbabwe on Sunday joined the bishops and international organizations in denouncing the country's "deteriorating human rights situation".
"We condemn the arrest of innocent citizens not wanted for any crime," it said in a statement, calling on state officials to face justice for alleged violence.
Mutsvangwa's statement -- published on the front page of Zimbabwe's Sunday Mail newspaper -- sparked outrage on social media, where the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter has been trending for the past weeks.
"So many things are just wrong and gross in that speech," tweeted Bulawayo-based journalist Zenzele Ndebele.
"I am Zimbabwean and I am definitely not dancing to that... tribal song," said another Twitter user.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC-Alliance) condemned the "incendiary hate speech" and called on the government to apologise for the "unacceptable remarks".
"The singling out of a Ndebele archbishop... is discrimination on tribal grounds," tweeted MDC-Alliance spokeswoman Fadzayi Mahere, warning against the reviving of Zimbabwe's "history of genocide".
Some 20,000 people were killed during the 1980s, when late ex-president Robert Mugabe led a military-style crackdown on alleged militants known as Gukurahundi.
The targets were mainly Ndebele, perceived as backing the opposition, while Mugabe was Shona.