An overbearing President Robert Mugabe dismissed as "political nonsense" the Catholic bishops' Easter pastoral letter and warned that by blaming the nation's economic and political woes on bad governance the bishops had chosen a "dangerous path".
In extracts of an interview published in a state newspaper, Mugabe said the government would treat the country's nine bishops, all signatories to the letter, as "political entities" and "deal with them accordingly."
The Herald newspaper quoted the president saying, "If I had gone to church and the priest had read that so-called pastoral letter, I would have stood up and said nonsense. It is not something spiritual, it is not religious; the bishops have decided to turn political. And once they 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."
The pastoral letter was the bishops' strongest ever indictment of Mugabe, in power since Zimbabwe's independence 27 years ago.
Reacting to the president's comments, outspoken Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo insisted that it was time for Mugabe and his "corrupt" regime to go.
He told the BBC on Sunday that Zimbabweans should not to be cowed by Mugabe's use of intimidation and violence to silence critics.
"As far as I'm concerned he must go," the archbishop said. "You can't negotiate with him. It's useless. African presidents have tried to negotiate with that man to no avail."