Two Zimbabwean bishops working behind the scenes to reduce tensions before parliamentary elections next year visited Washington this week as part of what they consider their duty to keep the country on the world's agenda.

"It is not like in Darfur or Iraq, and it could be completely forgotten," Bishop Trevor Manhanga of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe said about his country. "If that happens, Zimbabwe will be in a very bad state."

Manhanga and Bishop Patrick Mutume of the Catholic Diocese of Manicaland, who met with Hill staffers and a senior State Department official dealing with African affairs, said they are trying to improve the relationship between President Robert Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The two men of the cloth said they feared that a wave of violence could engulf the country, similar to the turmoil that followed general elections in 2000 and a presidential vote in 2002.

"People should be able to exercise their votes freely," Manhanga said, "and there should be a level playing field."

Opposition leaders have said intimidation and fraud caused their party to lose the 2000 and 2002 elections. The opposition "felt it was robbed after the 2000 election and nothing has been settled," Manhanga said.

Although Zimbabwe started out as a success story when Mugabe came to power in 1980 as the country's first black leader, "when you look back, we did not establish enough of a democratic tradition," Manhanga said. Zimbabweans did not know how to deal with an emerging opposition and allegations of official corruption, he added.

In addition to concerns about the electoral process, unemployment remains a hot-button issue in Zimbabwe. An ill-planned program to give white-owned farms to landless blacks has left thousands of people without jobs, deepening Zimbabwe's economic crisis.

"Inflation, drought and a devalued currency made things even more difficult, and land reform in the post-colonial era has left a minority of white farmers in a very uncertain situation," Manhanga said. "Even the farms seized from black African owners and redistributed to small farmers have led to the loss of jobs and displaced workers."

Laws that had been applied selectively denied the opposition the right of assembly, prohibited it from organizing and limited its access to the official media, heightening an atmosphere of mistrust and hate, Mutume said.

The leading opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was acquitted last week of plotting to kill Mugabe but still faces unrelated treason charges for allegedly violating the Public Order and Security Act in 2003. Tsvangirai and his supporters, who strongly contested the 2002 election that gave Mugabe another six-year term, have threatened to boycott the vote next year if the president fails to institute several reforms, including the creation of an impartial election commission.

Tsvangirai's acquittal has energized religious leaders from a wide range of denominations to seek a peaceful resolution to the political impasse. They have met with elected officials from Mugabe's party and the opposition, as well as with regional leaders.

Manhanga and Mutume said it was the obligation of religious leaders to participate in politics. "As members of the church, we have to continue educating our people on what to look for and what to hold elected officials accountable for. For us it is jobs, health and governance, not to mention democracy," Mutume said.

Mutume has been watching with interest the religious overtones in the U.S. presidential campaign during his week so far in the United States. "God is not a Republican, neither is he a Democrat, and their candidates are wonderful Christians, but neither of their parties has a direct line to God," he said.

"It is known that the Bible is very accommodating and respects divergence of opinion and our ability to choose. People who use their Bible to reach their own ends do a great disservice to Christianity," he said. The devout are committed to adhering to their beliefs, he added, "but we should never remove from society their ability to choose. That is their right."

Catholic Bishop Patrick Mutume, left, and Pentecostal Bishop Trevor Manhanga met with several U.S. officials to discuss Zimbabwe's future.