HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) - President Robert Mugabe told Roman Catholic bishops who issued a letter blaming him for the country's political and economic turmoil they had chosen "a dangerous path," and church officials said Friday a priest had been briefly detained for passing the pastoral message on to his congregation.
The arrested priest and a member of his congregation were released without charge after spending 24 hours in jail last month, said Father Oskar Wermter of the Catholic social communications secretariat in Harare. It was the first reported arrest of a priest on political grounds in recent years.
Later on Friday, police arrested two prominent lawyers who have specialized in human rights issues, colleagues said.
The pastoral letter signed by all of the country's nine bishops called on Mugabe to end oppression in the country and allow for democratic reform. It also warned that violent confrontation and deepening economic hardships were pushing the nation close to a flash point.
"The bishops have decided to turn political. And once they turn political, we regard them as no longer being spiritual," Mugabe said of the letter in extracts of an interview published in the state Herald newspaper on Friday.
"Our relations with them would be conducted as political entities, and this is quite a dangerous path they have chosen for themselves," Mugabe was quoted as saying.
He called the pastoral letter "political nonsense."
Church officials said since the pastoral letter was distributed across the country to coincide with Easter services, state agents visited Catholic churches and questioned worshippers over their understanding of the bishops' message.
The priest arrested had evidently given prominence to the letter in services in northern Harare.
Wermter said Mugabe's response was to be expected.
"What is surprising is that he kept silent for so long. People have reacted to the letter very positively and maybe that is riling him," Wermter said.
Western governments have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe to protest Mugabe's human rights record. Investment and foreign loans have dried up in six years of political and economic turmoil following the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms that began in 2000. Inflation, running at more than 2,000 percent annually, is the highest in the world.
Opposition activists and civic leaders along with independent journalists accused of giving credence to calls for "regime change" in Zimbabwe have frequently been arrested and assaulted in efforts to silence them.
Attorney Sternford Moyo said police arrested lawyers Alec Muchadehama and Andrew Makoni at their Harare offices late Friday and held them at the main Harare police jail, allegedly for attempting to pervert the course of justice.
The two lawyers are currently representing a group of jailed opposition activists who have denied involvement in a series of petrol bombings since early March.
The defense team has argued some of the evidence against the activists, who face life imprisonment on terrorism charges, has been faked by authorities.
Arrests on Friday afternoon are common, preventing suspects having access to courts until after the weekend.
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