Catholic bishops published the protest letter, 'God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed', - which compares the plight of Zimbabweans to the biblical oppression suffered by Jewish slaves under the Egyptian pharaohs - on Easter Sunday. Since the religious festival the letter has been translated from English into the main vernacular languages of Shona and Ndebele and disseminated among the country's rural communities, areas which are regarded as bastions of support for the ZANU-PF government.
In the letter Zimbabwe's political and economic woes are blamed on poor leadership and bad governance and it exhorts: "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."
Catholicism is the country's dominant religion and Mugabe, a practising Catholic, has accused the bishops of meddling in politics. He said in an interview with the New African, a British-based current affairs journal, "once they (bishops) turn political, we regard them as no longer being spiritual and our relations with them would be conducted as if we are dealing with political entities, and this is quite a dangerous path they have chosen for themselves."
Pedzisayi Ruhanya, a representative of the umbrella organisation for Zimbabwean nongovernmental organisations, The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CZC) and one of many human rights and church organisations condemning the harassment of Catholic parishioners, told IRIN "The militias are responding to their leader's (Mugabe) tirade against the bishops. But then, this is typical of ZANU-PF, especially ahead of crucial elections, whereby they do whatever they can to make sure that the people are not informed of its excesses,"
"The situation is particularly disturbing when you take cognisance of the fact that the church is supposed to play a vital role as a watchdog against political and social repression, yet there are brutal attempts to undermine that," he said
Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, a long time critic of Mugabe's government, told IRIN the attacks by the militias were part of a strategy of intimidation ahead of next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.
"The Green Bombers (militias from youth training centres) are being used to go around to strike fear in voters so that, come next year, they will be forced to vote ZANU-PF," Ncube said.
Ncube said members of his church were being harassed throughout the country and recounted a recent incident in the south-western border town of Plumtree where he had prevented ZANU-PF militias from gatecrashing a meeting he was holding with priests in the area. He said a priest was subsequently arrested in Wedza, Mashonaland Central, for distributing the pastoral letter while members of his congregation were also detained for questioning by state security agents.
In Mashonaland East province, traditionally a ruling party stronghold, parishioners are opting to stay at home rather than attend church after militias threatened them for distributing the pastoral letter.
"They [militias] are accusing us of being members of the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] and working to topple the government. It's no longer safe to worship because the militias treat you as enemies," said 55-year-old Father Tirivafi Haka, who declined to use his real name, a church leader in Murewa, about 90km east of the capital, Harare.
After a recent church service, the youths, led by a well-known war veteran, raided his home, Haka said, and attempted to set it on fire because he had distributed letters among his congregation. Haka fled and after two days in hiding sought medical treatment for a badly sprained ankle incurred during his escape at the nearby Murewa hospital. Militias descended on the clinic and threatened medical staff with violence if they provided Haka with treatment.
"As if that was not enough, they forced me to address my congregation denouncing the pastoral letter and the MDC while chanting ZANU-PF slogans; it is unbelievable and painful," he said.
The militia's have threatened to shut down Haka's butchery business if he does not write a formal letter of apology to the local ZANU-PF branch within seven days and demonstrate his "loyalty" by buying a party membership card. "At the end of the day I don't have a choice, for the safety of my family and the church members," he said.
In Mutoko, about 80km northeast of Murewa, Sheila Mukurazhizha, a 26-year-old youth leader, told IRIN about a similar pattern of intimidation. "Before the attacks on our members began, our church would record more than 200 people per service but now, hardly 50 people are turning up on Sundays."
She said each Sunday "marauding" militias camped on the steps of the church, armed with knobkerries (fighting sticks) and knives, threatening the parishioners and their children who came to worship and turning the religious service into a ZANU-PF rally, singing songs and chanting pro-government slogans.
One of the youth militia, who identified himself only as Hammer, told IRIN, "We know no other political party [outside the ruling party] in this area and we won't hesitate to flush out our enemies. Zimbabwe will not be a colony again. Once we get an order from our superiors, we execute it."
The church has responded to the tactics of the militias by issuing a statement: "We encourage every Zimbabwean to read the pastoral letter as a guide to understanding the source of our suffering and let it inspire our prayers and actions. We call upon every Christian individual and organisation to commit themselves to the truth of God's word about the situation and it is only the truth that will set us free."
Faith based organisations, including the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe National Pastors Conference and the Christian Alliance, have called for public prayer meetings similar to those held in Harare earlier this year, which led to the mass arrests of the participants.