BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe — At night, when the archbishop tries to sleep, his mind churns with the stories of his poor, hungry countrymen. Often he crawls out of bed and prowls his house, haunted by one of religion's eternal questions: Why does God let people suffer so?
During services, parishioners say, his emotions take over and he sometimes seems on the verge of tears.
Nearly a quarter of Zimbabwe's population has been pushed to the edge of starvation by five years of economic mismanagement and hyperinflation. Unemployment is estimated at 80%. A campaign this year by President Robert Mugabe's government to destroy squatter camps and street stalls left about 700,000 people homeless. Mugabe repeatedly has been accused of rigging elections to stay in power.
Witnessing all of this, Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo has become the president's most prominent internal critic. He acknowledges that he prays for Mugabe's death.
"I don't understand why God allows these murderers to get away with everything," Ncube said in an interview in his office here in western Zimbabwe. "More often, I am really so angry about this government. Mugabe is after power and after money. When I think of it my heart breaks."
Tall, gangly and bespectacled, Ncube dresses as humbly as a priest. When speaking, he often refers to individual cases of suffering, or villages he has visited where people are hungry. Before elections in March, he exposed instances in which opposition supporters were refused access to food through the government's monopoly grain board.
Mugabe, 81, one of Africa's archetypal "Big Men," has led Zimbabwe, once one of sub-Saharan Africa's more prosperous countries, for a quarter of a century. He remains a hero to many of the continent's leaders.
Ncube's office is decked with images of people he considers true heroes: Mohandas K. Gandhi; Nelson Mandela; Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the slain Roman Catholic archbishop who spoke out for the poor despite pressure from the Vatican to keep a lower profile.
Ncube's voice is soft and his manner shy and self-effacing, yet his attacks on Mugabe are so blunt that allies worry he might be assassinated.
Ncube says that his phones are tapped and that authorities recently threatened to confiscate his passport. The secret police, the CIO, follow him, watch his home and monitor his sermons, he says, and last year they questioned his mother, now 88.
"This government, the one thing they don't like is the truth. But I'll not stop speaking," Ncube said. "The evils they are doing are so bad."
After the incident with his mother, Ncube went to the local secret police headquarters, sipped tea with the enemy and politely demanded that they stop harassing her.
"They said, 'We were not trying to harass your mother. We were just doing routine visits.' But I knew they were not doing routine visits," Ncube said. "They wanted to intimidate me because we are all very sensitive about our mothers."
He tells her almost nothing about his activities. She, too, has trouble sleeping.
"Ninety-five percent of what I do, I don't tell her because she gets very worried and nervous and fears for my life," Ncube said.
The criticism that flies between Mugabe and Ncube, both products of Zimbabwe's Catholic education system, sometimes takes on an almost biblical quality. Ncube accuses Mugabe of evil and Mugabe calls Ncube satanic. Government officials and state media have alleged that Ncube is HIV-positive and a rapist.
The president has also accused him of harboring political ambitions. The clergyman denies that, even while criticizing the performance of the main political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, which recently fell apart amid internal fighting.
"Politics is generally dirty. African politics is extra dirty and dangerous and corrupt," Ncube said. "I don't know any clergyman in Africa who went into politics and remained honest."
One opposition activist in Bulawayo said some people wished Ncube would take a role in politics. Others said that although Ncube's anti-Mugabe stand was courageous and principled, he was not suited to politics.
"I think he's a very good man and a very good priest. I think his quality is as a strong moral voice in Zimbabwe. I don't think he'd be comfortable in a political party," said Harare-based political analyst Brian Raftopoulos.
Ncube, who was born in 1946 in southern Zimbabwe, is the son of a peasant cattle farmer. His mother left to work in Bulawayo as a servant when Ncube was a boy, and he was brought up by his aunt, a fiercely religious woman. Ncube believes that living with his aunt's family and attending a school run by a German nun named Sister Desideria set his moral compass in life.