By Frank Phiri
BLANTYRE (Reuters) - The Archbishop Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wants to meet Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe during his visit to Africa and call on him to end a violent suppression of the Anglican Church and its priests in the country.
Williams, who Thursday began a tour of southern Africa in Malawi, will arrive in Zimbabwe at the weekend. Mugabe's officials would not confirm if a meeting had been set with England's most senior cleric.
"This is a pastoral visit at the invitation of my bishop brothers, but of course I shall be raising with President Mugabe the issue about the harassment and persecution of our church in Zimbabwe," Williams told reporters at Blantyre's airport.
"What difference that will make is in God's hands, but I want to put that on the table," he said.
Williams plans to meet Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika, who has been criticized by global powers for igniting a diplomatic flap with Britain and using his forces to crush anti-government rallies in July where 20 protesters were killed.
Malawi has advanced laws to punish homosexuality, with Williams saying the Anglican Church condemns any persecution or violence against homosexuals.
The archbishop, however commended Mutharika for overturning the conviction and punishment of a gay couple in Malawi sentenced to 14 years in jail for their relationship. The case was a global sensation about two years ago.
In Zimbabwe, the Anglican church has gone to court to stop a rebel bishop from seizing church assets, amid escalating tensions ahead of the Williams visit.
The church is appealing against an August 4 ruling that gave Nolbert Kunonga, an avowed Mugabe supporter who leads a break-away faction of the church, custody of the Anglican church's Zimbabwean properties.
Kunonga is a former head of the Anglican church in the country but resigned in 2007 claiming a dispute over homosexuality and the church's stance on Mugabe's policies such as the highly criticized seizures of white-owned farms.
In a statement, the top Anglican bishop in Zimbabwe, Chad Gandiya, accused Kunonga of intensifying attacks on priests aligned to the mainstream church and seizing church properties including schools and orphanages.
"Clergy and members of the laity belonging to the Anglican Diocese of Harare...have been receiving threats, constant harassment and lately severe beatings from Kunonga's hooligans, masquerading as clergy," Gandiya said in a statement.
Kunonga was not immediately available to comment, but he recently told the state-controlled Herald newspaper that the court ruling entitled him to all the church's assets.
In February, Williams wrote an open letter urging Mugabe to stop the abuse of Anglican parishioners and priests by the police and Kunonga's supporters.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Banya in Harare; Editing by Jon Herskovitz)