Zimbabwe is a deeply religious country. Daily discussions of the country's crisis end with Zimbabweans, black and white, saying: "We can only pray." So when the leaders of Zimbabwe's churches unanimously warn that the country faces "genocide" unless the international community intervenes, it is an important moment.
The clerics were speaking more than three weeks after a presidential election whose result President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party refuse to disclose, almost certainly because he was soundly defeated by Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). A recount of 23 parliamentary seats is under way in an apparent attempt to restore Zanu-PF's lost majority, and a wave of violence and intimidation has swept the country ahead of any possible presidential run-off.
"Organised violence perpetrated against individuals, families and communities who are accused of campaigning or voting for the 'wrong' political party ... has been unleashed throughout the country," said a joint statement by the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference and the Zimbabwe Council of Churches.
"People are being abducted, tortured, humiliated by being asked to repeat slogans of the political party they are alleged not to support, ordered to attend mass meetings where they are told they voted for the 'wrong' candidate."
The religious leaders call for voter intimidation to stop, adding that there is "widespread famine" in the countryside, that basic goods are unavailable or too expensive and that there are no medicines to treat people injured in the post-election violence. But their message to the international community is an uncomfortable reminder of previous occasions on which the world failed to act in time.
"If nothing is done to help the people of Zimbabwe from their predicament, we shall soon be witnessing genocide similar to that experienced in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and other hot spots in Africa and elsewhere," they warn. "We appeal to the Southern African Development Community [SADC], the African Union and the United Nations to work towards arresting the deteriorating political and security situation in Zimbabwe."
This directly confronts the issue of what other countries can, or should, do to prevent abuses of the kind happening in Zimbabwe. Britain is in a particularly difficult position: Mr Mugabe has cast Mr Tsvangirai as a puppet of the former colonial power, and British criticism can be seen as making the 84-year-old autocrat's case.
But Gordon Brown and now the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who called on African leaders this week to isolate Mr Mugabe, have clearly decided that tactful silence is no longer an option when the Zimbabwean leader, in the Foreign Secretary's words, is "clinging to power and beating his own people to death to ensure he retains it".
There is very little that Britain, its European partners, the UN or even the African Union can do about Zimbabwe if its neighbours are not prepared to act, but here there is at last some hope for Mr Mugabe's battered opponents.
The feeble response of SADC at a summit called 10 days ago by Levy Mwanawasa, Zambia's President, caused outrage among the more democratic of its 14 member countries, particularly in South Africa, where the "quiet diplomacy" of the designated mediator, President Thabo Mbeki, came to be seen as simple appeasement of Mr Mugabe.
The rising tide of discontent at the region's failure found its bluntest expression yesterday when Jacob Zuma, the man who ousted Mr Mbeki as president of the African National Congress, said Africa must send a mission to Zimbabwe to end the delay in issuing election results. "It's not acceptable," said Mr Zuma, who is favourite to succeed Mr Mbeki as South African president next year. "It's not helping the Zimbabwean people who have gone out to... elect the kind of party and presidential candidate they want, exercising their constitutional right."
Mr Zuma, who is visiting European countries and is due to meet Mr Brown in London today, was the first to express public dissatisfaction with President Mbeki's approach, drawing support from many sections of the ANC.
Eventually, Mr Mbeki himself was forced to acknowledge the inaccuracy of his statement in Harare the weekend before last, while holding Mr Mugabe's hand, that there was "no crisis" in Zimbabwe.
Breaking southern Africa's conspiracy of silence over Zimbabwe has now had a tangible effect: yesterday Beijing said a shipment of weapons bound for the landlocked country may head home after the vessel was turned away from one port after another. First South African dockers refused to unload the vessel, upon which it headed for Mozambique, then Angola.
There are tentative signs that Zimbabwe's neighbours, many of whom have absorbed millions of economic migrants due to the ongoing crisis, may have run out of patience with the erstwhile liberator in Harare.
Mr Mwanawasa yesterday called on all African countries to follow suit and refuse entry to the arms. It seems that even those of Mr Mugabe's neighbours who regard his oppression as none of their business, or possibly even praiseworthy, could not quite stomach the idea of sending him bullets and grenades for use on his own people.
The Rhodesian leader Ian Smith knew he was finished when South Africa pulled the plug on him, and while no one expects Mr Mbeki to do the same to Mr Mugabe, there is much that pressure groups in South Africa can do to squeeze the regime in Harare, which is more fragile than it seems to the country's desperate opposition. If Mr Mugabe is open to reason, he might realise it would be better to do a deal before Mr Zuma takes over as leader of his powerful southern neighbour.
What happens next?
Everyone except Thabo Mbeki agrees something must be done to get rid of the Mugabe regime, but there is no clear strategy yet as all approaches have been rejected. The international community needs to consult before taking a rash decision that could backfire.
This crisis has been going on since Mugabe rigged the elections in 2000. How many more million Zimbabweans will be forced out of the country or beaten up by Mugabe's so-called war veterans before the international community takes a stand? Handwringing brings nothing but shame on countries which have stood by while other African dictators have ignored the will of their people.
How likely? 9/10
Mugabe's henchmen need more gentle persuasion to ditch their leader in favour of a negotiated solution which would allow them to keep their corruptly obtained wealth. Southern African leaders need to make Mugabe and his allies aware that the game is up.
Mugabe should not be allowed to get off scot free but should pay the penalty for his crimes against hispeople, preferably in court. There can be nocompromise with members of a regime who have been tainted by their association with Mugabe, who has deliberately isolated himself from the rest of the world.
How likely? 6/10
A travel ban in the European Union and United States and an assets freeze is already hurting Mugabe and 130 of his cronies, and tougher sanctions could be put in place. An EU arms embargo has also been in place since 2002. The existing sanctions could be tightened in order to be more effective, and should not have get-out clauses.
Existing sanctions are a joke and have been waived at every opportunity, allowing Mugabe to thumb his nose at the international community. Broader economic sanctions would hurt the Zimbabwean people. And Mugabe has turned to China for weapons.
How likely? 4/10
Even the Pope highlighted the UN principle of "responsibility to protect", providing for collective action against states which refuse to protect their citizens from human rights abuses. If UN Security Council authorisation cannot be obtained, a coalition of the willing should go in to save the Zimbabwean people from catastrophe.
South Africa, with a seat on the UN Security Council, will ensure no UN action is ordered to unseat Mugabe by force. The Iraq invasion proved military action can produce unintended consequences.
How likely? 0/10Reuse content