HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on Tuesday said an activist pastor behind anti-government protests this month was being sponsored by foreign countries set on destabilizing his administration.
On July 8, a 'stay away' protest movement led by church minister Evan Mawarire shut down most businesses, government offices, schools and hospitals in the biggest act of public defiance against Mugabe in a decade.
Mawarire, who rallied followers under his #ThisFlag Twitter campaign, was arrested last week and formally accused of treason but was freed when a court threw out the charges.
- Photos: Women's March In New York City30 Pictures
- PHOTOS: 16 Betty White quotes to brighten your day17 Pictures
In his first public comments on Mawarire, the 92-year-old Mugabe accused the pastor of urging Zimbabweans to engage in violent protests, questioning whether he was a "true preacher".
"You can't urge people to adopt violence, violent demonstrations as the way of life or a way of solving grievances, no. We will say no, forever no," Mugabe said at the burial of a senior politician in Harare.
"The Mawarires, if they don't like to live with us, let them go to those who are sponsoring them, to the countries that are sponsoring them," Mugabe added.
Mugabe's government has previously accused French and American ambassadors in Harare of supporting Mawarire's #ThisFlag movement. The diplomats have denied the accusations.
Mawarire, who is currently in South Africa, says his protests are peaceful and are against government corruption, alleged police brutality, delays in paying state workers' salaries and cash shortages.
Mugabe's government is struggling to pay its workers and was on Tuesday expected to meet civil service union leaders, where it is expected to set dates for July salaries. The government last week failed to pay the army.
(Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Joe Brock)