Malawi political tensions include campaign against Catholic bishop

ppmutharikacna210911 Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika

The president of Malawi and his allies, in the midst of corruption, economic crisis, and a narrowing of civil liberties, have begun political attacks on churches the president sees as enemies of his government.

A rift between President Bingu wa Mutharika and the Catholic Church increased in August when Bishop Joseph Mkasa Zuza of Mzuzu in northern Malawi, gave a public speech in front of the president. The bishop, who is the head of Malawi’s bishop’s conference, said several times that those who believe themselves to be perfect and to have no need of advice are perfect fools.

The bishop intended the speech to be a general criticism of the way the country is led, but the president took it as a personal affront. He now “never misses an opportunity to attack the churches, without any respect,” Montfort missionary Fr. Piergiorgio Gamba told Fides news agency.

“There is a campaign of defamation against the Bishop, with very heavy accusations towards him and his ministry,” said the missionary, who has been working in Malawi for over 30 years.

In response, the Christian churches are showing unity in support of the bishop. In the Catholic Church, Fr. Gamba said, religious men and women and the entire community share “the courageous choice of their bishops.”

But the rift with the bishop is only one aspect of the discontent that is percolating in Malawi.

Opponents of President Mutharika on Sept. 21 called for people to stay indoors and not go to work because police authorities have not granted permission for a national protest demonstration despite the approval of the country’s Supreme Court.

Police said they will not protect any demonstrators, which is why protest organizers are asking people to stay away, civil rights leader Piter Chinoko told Reuters.

Opponents accuse the president of mismanaging the economy and centralizing power at the expense of the country’s democratic gains.

Activists want him to rein in government spending and sell a $13 million presidential jet. They want a ban on the import of luxury cars for government officials, a review of fuel import policies, and mended ties with aid donors who have cut funding over worries about Mutharika’s governance.

The president’s forces killed 20 people when he crushed protests in July.

Fr. Gamba reported a climate of intimidation, especially in the case of journalist Ernest Mahwayo. He was arrested for taking photographs of the president’s multimillion dollar home he is building on his farm.

“It took two days for him to be released from the police cells of Limbe, among the worst ever in the country,” the missionary told Fides.

In August, local U.N. officials negotiated an agreement to postpone further rallies but rights groups pulled out of negotiations last week when the properties of two leading activists were attacked with petrol bombs.

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