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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 July, 2003, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Malawi's political church leaders
By Raphael Tenthani
BBC Africa Live!

Monsignor Boniface Tamani with predecessor Reverend Kaswaya
Monsignor Tamani (left) says the church should be free to say what it wants
The relationship between church and state is one that arouses controversy in many countries around the world - and few more so than Malawi.

Religious leaders in the southern African country are divided over whether or not President Muluzi should have his term in office extended.

The split is between both the government and the leaders and between the leaders themselves.

While Muslims, who make up less than 20% of Malawi's population of 11 million people, wanted Mr Muluzi - a Muslim - to remain in power, Christian leaders insist that he should step down, as stipulated by the country's constitution.

"We can't just stand on the pulpit and preach about Jesus," Catholic Church head Monsignor Boniface Tamani of Malawi's Public Affairs Committee (PAC) told BBC World Service's Africa Live! programme.

The Bill of Rights in several constitutions is derived from the Bible
Monsignor Boniface Tamani
"We are the soul of the nation - we have to comment on everyday lives of the people, their social well-being, and politics happens to be one of the major players in the nation's everyday lives."


In turn the PAC - primarily a grouping of Christian leaders - has come under attack from Mr Muluzi.

"These people should leave politics to us," he said.

"The problem here is everyone wants to be a politician. Can I go to Kaswaya's church and preach?"

It is not the first time conflict between the church and the head of state has flared up in the country.

The church has hindered development in Africa, but it is also the last guardian of morals in a decadent world
A Bobori, UK

In 1992, eight Catholic bishops faced the death penalty after producing the Pastoral Letter "Living Our Faith" - a rare frank critique of Malawi's atavistic dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

The bishops were rounded up and a special convention of Banda's then ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP) resolved they should be put to death.

The Holy See, the Catholic church's ruling council at the Vatican, and the international community had to step in to save them.

But the letter had sparked a political revolution, with exiles like Chakufwa Chihana coming out in the open, drumming up international support against the Banda regime.

Mr Muluzi, himself a former Banda protege who was leading a quite life as a businessman, stirred back to life politically.

Donors quickly stopped aid to Malawi, forcing Mr Banda - hitherto a darling of the West during the Cold War era - to institute political change.

A referendum was held, paving the way for the 1994 general elections that saw Mr Muluzi and the UDF uproot Mr Banda and the MCP's 30-year uninterrupted stranglehold on power.

"Now that the heat is on them, they are saying it's not right for religious leaders to comment on politics - what hypocrisy," Mr Tamani said.


Civil rights activist Emmie Chanika, who heads the Blantyre-based Civil Liberties Committee (CILIC), said she agreed with Mr Tamani, arguing that Malawi is currently enjoying peace because the church is prepared to speak out.

"Religious leaders in Zimbabwe recently apologised for being quiet for a long time leading to the current chaos," she said.

"In fact the Bill of Rights in several constitutions is derived from the Bible."

Malawi's president Muluzi
Muluzi's party is in dispute with Malawi's Christian leaders
But UDF deputy publicist Ken Lipenga told Africa Live! that while the ruling party accepted criticism, some religious leaders were being used by political groups.

Mr Lipenga argued that the torching of UDF offices in Blantyre by university students during an anti-third term demonstration went uncriticised by the church, while beatings issued by the UDF's Young Democrats were routinely condemned.

"I am not condoning acts of terror by our youth wing but it seems whenever the UDF is a victim nobody cares, but whenever we are in the wrong it's big news," he said.

Mr Lipenga's claims were disputed by Mosses Mkandawire, coordinator of the Church and Society - a civil rights wing of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterians.

"The problem could be it is the ruling party that tramples upon other people's rights so often, that's why they seem to be under constant attack," he said.

Meanwhile Mr Tamani said that ultimately, religious leaders have a duty to comment on anything, be it politics, HIV/Aids, or poverty.

"We can't all be politicians," he said.

"But we can't let politicians get away with it simply because we are not politicians."

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