Catholics in Zimbabwe, supported by Archbishop Pius Ncube and other prelates, have helped to organize two prayer meetings this past week. The meetings, held in Catholic churches, were organized to express opposition to the government of President Robert Mugabe, which has been under fire for its human rights abuses.

Zimbabwe police allowed the prayer meeting to take place on Saturday at St. Patrick’s Community Church in Makokoba despite earlier threats to stop the gathering as an illegal anti-government protest.

Police officers, in uniform and in plain clothes, reportedly watched opposition figures, labor and student leaders, rights activists, and clerics filing in and out of the prayer meeting from a distance.

Organizers of the vigil, the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, said in a statement they were determined to defy any attempt to stop the prayer meeting despite fears of a police crackdown.

"The leadership of the campaign once again reiterates its commitment to the resolution of the Zimbabwean crisis in total defiance of the brutality being perpetrated by the state security agents," it said. "We deplore the use of violence by those that are in power."

The meeting was co-organized by Archbishop Pius Ncube, who has been very critical of Mugabe's government. Zimbabwe's Catholic Bishops' Conference last week joined Archbishop Ncube in accusing Mugabe and his officials of running a corrupt government and abusing the political rights of Zimbabweans.

At the prayer meeting on Thursday, the archbishop was joined by two South African bishops, who were active in the struggle against apartheid. According to the Harare Herald, the "Candles for Peace and Prayer" service, held at St. Mary's Cathedral in Bulawayo, started at 5:30 p.m. It was attended mostly by civil activists, including members of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign and officials from the opposition party.

Archbishop Ncube told the crowd that the meeting was organized to "pray for peace and denounce oppression.”

Archbishop Buti Tlagale of Johannesburg likened the situation in Zimbabwe to the "apartheid era in South Africa" and said the Church had a duty to provide "mediating leadership in the case of a leadership vacuum.”

Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg attacked Sadc leaders for criticizing the West, for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe, and for not committing to help improve Zimbabwe's economy.

The Harare Herald made reference to accusations that the protests are being sponsored by the United States and Britain to illegally remove the Mugabe government from power.

Mugabe accuses Zimbabwe's former colonial power, Britain, of leading a Western campaign to oust his government as punishment for seizing and redistributing white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks. London denies there is such a plot.

Mugabe, a practicing Catholic, and his officials have not responded publicly to criticism from Catholic officials. Some analysts believe could have a greater influence in persuading him to discuss political reform than attacks from elsewhere. Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination in Zimbabwe.