THE Prime Minister, John Howard, should intervene to block Australia's cricket tour of Zimbabwe to maximise pressure on the discredited regime of President Robert Mugabe, a senior church leader claims.
As Australia's victorious World Cup cricketers arrived home yesterday, an outspoken Mugabe critic, the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, said participation in September's tour would only lend legitimacy to the autocratic leader and be used as a propaganda tool by the regime.
Archbishop Ncube, a respected human rights campaigner, said it should not be left to cricketers to take a moral stand but should be a government decision.
He said it was naive to argue that sport and politics do not mix, and every means possible should be used to unseat Zimbabwe's leader and bring about democratic reforms.
Australia's visit to Zimbabwe during the World Cup four years ago was used to great effect by the state-controlled media to suggest that the international community was on side, Archbishop Ncube told the Herald.
"Whenever there is a touring sporting team there is a lot of focus on it to show there is nothing wrong with Zimbabwe and ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¦ everything is going so well and that Tony Blair and George Bush are the ones that are demonising Zimbabwe," the archbishop said.
"My encouragement would be let's boycott and not go there, so that in this way we can embarrass and put pressure on this immoral government of Mugabe and his cronies."
The issue of a state-sanctioned sporting boycott will be raised in a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, on Tuesday at which Australia will also be urged to support humanitarian appeals, assist African leaders to mediate with Zimbabwe's major parties and help draft a new democratic constitution to ensure voting in elections scheduled for next year are free and fair.
A spokesman for Mr Downer said the Government did not support the cricket tour to Zimbabwe "under current circumstances", but it was up to to Cricket Australia to consider all issues, including team security. Mr Downer would meet cricket administrators soon.
Meanwhile, the team's vice-captain, Adam Gilchrist, told the Herald he had yet to form a personal position on the issue. The bowler Stuart MacGill boycotted Australia's last tour, in 2003.
"We'll learn as much as we can about it in the next few weeks, like we always do," Gilchrist said. "We'll try and, hopefully, make what we feel is the right decision, because we're not going to satisfy everyone."
Speaking at the Lowy Institute, Archbishop Ncube said Zimbabwe had never been in such a dire position, with inflation at 2200 per cent - the highest in the world - and with the world's lowest life expectancy rate.
Fear of retribution had stifled a popular uprising among the Zimbabwe people, most of whom had no experience of democracy, Archbishop Ncube said.
By far the biggest obstacle to reform was Mr Mugabe, whom the archbishop described as a conceited, ego-driven megalomaniac.
Archbishop Ncube said he had had his life threatened, was continuously vilified in the state-controlled media and had been publicly abused by Mr Mugabe many times. His phone is tapped and his car is tailed by "strange vehicles".
"I refuse to be intimidated. It is my country, I have a right to speak, to go anywhere and not be intimidated," the archbishop said.