Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, center, meets with Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, right, Nov. 19 at the State House in Harare. Looking on is Brigadier Gen. Happyton Bonyongwe, minister of justice, and Father Fidelis Mukonori, parliamentary liaison officer for Harare Archdiocese. (CNS photo/handout via Reuters)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) — Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops urged restraint and patience from Zimbabweans in what they called “most delicate times” after 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe was sacked as leader of his party following a de facto coup.

They also called on Zimbabwe’s defense forces and political leaders to work for a “peaceful end to the crisis and a speedy return to normalcy and constitutional order.”

“The church has keenly and prayerfully followed the recent tense events in the country,” the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in a Nov. 19 statement signed by conference president Bishop Michael Bhasera of Masvingo, vice president Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare, and other bishops.

“The church has also observed the increased economic hardship for ordinary Zimbabweans,” it said, noting that “the atmosphere has drastically deteriorated, culminating in the current intervention by the Zimbabwe Defense Forces.”

Jesuit Father Fidelis Mukonori, parliamentary liaison officer for the Harare Archdiocese, heads a negotiating team between Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980, and the military officers.

“Let us be mindful of the fact that, besides those who took action and those involved in the ongoing delicate process, the entire population is concerned about the process as well as the future of the country,” the bishops said.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the capital, Harare, Nov. 18 to celebrate the expected end of Mugabe’s reign as one of Africa’s longest-serving heads of state. Mugabe’s policies are widely blamed for Zimbabwe’s economic decline over the last two decades. Millions of economic refugees have left the country, with most going to South Africa.

“The preservation of lives must be paramount and, for that, it is essential that peace, law and order be maintained,” the bishops said, noting that a “sustainable normalization of Zimbabwe” can only be achieved through democratic processes.

Asking people to “refrain from all lawlessness or any mass action that might worsen” the political situation, the bishops also urged the media and others to “refrain from conduct and utterances that increase tension, engender hatred or inflame emotions.”

People accused of crimes “must at all times be accorded due process and protection of the law” and the role of the civil courts as independent arbiters must continue unhindered as guaranteed by the constitution and “as promised by the Zimbabwe Defense Forces,” they said.