The Zimbabwe government's harassment of political opponents has taken its most serious turn against a rather surprising figure - Bishop Abel Muzorewa. Mr. Muzorewa was detained Oct. 31 as part of a Zimbabwe security operation against alleged ''subversive elements'' with links to South Africa.
Muzorewa is the third political figure to have been hit at by the government over the past year. But he is the first to have been jailed.
Last December, the passport of former Prime Minister Ian Smith was temporarily confiscated. And in March, the passport of chief opposition leader Joshua Nkomo was confiscated. Mr. Nkomo fled the country for some five months. Neither Smith nor Nkomo was ever charged.
Muzorewa, too, has not been charged. But the government's track record of making a good share of its allegations stick in court has led to much skepticism about whether a strong legal case against him exists, or whether, as some suspect, it is a case of pure political intimidation.
Whatever the case, analysts in Zimbabwe say Prime Minister Robert Mugabe has made it clear he intends to be ''ruthless'' with political opponents he regards as dangerous.
Muzorewa's detention is surprising to observers in Zimbabwe because of his relatively minor political status. He is head of the small United African National Council (UANC) party, which holds three seats in Zimbabwe's national assembly.
In the view of most informed analysts, Muzorewa's importance stems not from his political base but from the government's deep suspicions about his relationship with South Africa.
Muzorewa served briefly as prime minister in 1979. But the elections that brought him to power were not considered a true reflection of majority sentiment since the major black nationalist political parties were banned and their leaders were in exile.
During internationally recognized elections in 1980, Muzorewa was unable to shake off the tag of being a puppet of the former white regime of Ian Smith. Perceived as a moderate, Muzorewa was the clear favorite of Pretoria to win the 1980 elections.
Since coming to power in 1980, Mugabe has viewed Muzorewa with suspicion and has repeatedly charged that the bishop has a force of 500 soldiers waiting in South Africa to seize control of Zimbabwe someday.
The relationship between Mugabe and Muzorewa worsened earlier this year when Muzorewa charged that the people of Zimbabwe were ''more oppressed'' under Mugabe than under previous white majority rule.
Government ire reached a high point when Muzorewa visited Israel and urged closer relations between that country and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has no diplomatic relations with Israel, partly because of the strong military links between Israel and South Africa.
Muzorewa was arrested after returning from Israel when government officials discovered he was planning a trip shortly to South Africa. UANC officials said he would only pass through South Africa on his way to the United States.
[The UANC said Muzorewa's son Philemon was believed to have been arrested, Reuters reported Monday.]