The Archbishop of Canterbury has begun a pastoral visit to central Africa during which he will try to heal deep divisions in the Church in Zimbabwe.

Dr Rowan Williams’ nine-day tour starts in Malawi, where he will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its branch of the Anglican Church, and ends in Zambia

In between he visits Zimbabwe, where there have been reports of violence between rival factions of Anglicans.

The archbishop has asked to meet President Robert Mugabe over the issue.

This is despite warnings that the president “might use the opportunity to make political capital without granting significant concessions”, says the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott.

The Church in Zimbabwe has been bitterly divided since 2007, when the former Bishop of Harare Nolbert Kunonga separated from the Anglican communion amid rows over the ordination of gay priests and the policies of Zimbabwe’s government.

Tear gas attacks

Dr Williams expelled Mr Kunonga – a staunch supporter of Mr Mugabe – but Zimbabwe’s courts ruled the ousted bishop should retain control of church buildings in the capital.

Churchgoers who remained loyal to Dr Williams have since been beaten and attacked with tear gas during services.

Critics have accused Mr Kunonga of using people loyal to President Mugabe’s Zanu PF party to carry out the attacks.

The country’s violent regime has come under criticism from the Church in the past.

In 2007, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, cut up his clerical dog collar in protest at Mr Mugabe’s regime, saying he would not wear it again until the president had left office.

Dr Williams’ spokeswoman has said he aims to “show solidarity” with fellow Anglicans and their bishops who serve the community despite “disruption, intimidation and even violence”.

The archbishop will preach at a Eucharist at the National Sports Stadium in Harare and visit grassroots church projects caring for orphans and HIV sufferers.

In Malawi, he will visit Church initiatives including a Mothers’ Union literacy circle. Dr Williams closes his tour in the city of Kitwe, in Zambia’s copper belt, where he will preach at another outdoor Eucharist and attend a national clergy conference.