Possible arson destroys Malawi bishops’ headquarters

.- An arsonist may have started a fire that destroyed the offices of the Malawi Catholic bishops’ conference.

The Oct. 9 fire completely destroyed bishops’ offices and priests’ living quarters in the capital of Lilongwe. It began in a priest’s apartment and spread to the offices.

A source in Malawi provided reports to Aid to the Church in Need which said that the fire was part of an ongoing firebombing campaign against government critics.

However, Fr. George Buleya, secretary general of the Malawi bishops’ conference, said he was unable to confirm the reports but he said arson could not be ruled out.

The fire at the bishops’ offices follows the early September firebombing of the offices of the Institute for Policy Interaction. The institute’s head, Rafik Hajat, is one of the most outspoken critics of Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika.

Arson attacks have hit the homes of other government critics, including opposition politician Salim Bagus and human rights activist Macdonald Sembereka.

The Catholic Church has criticized the government numerous times in the past year.

Bishop Joseph Mukasa Zuza of the northern Malawi Diocese of Mzuzu, the head of the Malawi bishop’s conference delivered a speech at the Aug. 16 National Day of Prayers in the presence of the country’s president. The bishop accused the government of silencing civil society, the media and the faith community, which he said have a role to play in safeguarding democracy and the rule of law.

While the bishop intended the speech to be a general criticism of the way the country is led, the president took it as a personal affront and began using every opportunity to make verbal attacks on the churches.

“There is a campaign of defamation against the bishop, with very heavy accusations towards him and his ministry,” Montfort missionary Fr. Piergiorgio Gamba told Fides news agency in September.

In July, Bishop Zuza condemned violence by youths from the country’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

In 2010 the bishops’ conference published a pastoral letter which accused the government of “not serving the welfare of the people.”

Fr. Buleya said that since then, “the Church’s radius of action has become more restricted.”

There are also reports that government agents infiltrated the Malawi bishops’ last plenary meeting to spy on the Church. Fr. Buleya said he could not definitively confirm or rule out the reports, but the Church is “of interest to the secret services.”

He also could not rule out the possibility that the telephone conversations of church representatives are being tapped.

Nearly 80 percent of Malawi’s 15 million people are Christian, including 4.6 million Catholics. Thirteen percent of the population is Muslim, with the rest belonging to traditional African religions.

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