God, not Internet, holds key to Malawi protests

Sat Jul 23, 2011 2:51pm GMT

By Ed Cropley

LILONGWE (Reuters) - Unlike the Internet-based popular protests that have swept North Africa and the Middle East, the biggest threat to embattled Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika may be from Christian churches.

With two-thirds of the impoverished southern African nation's 13 million people living in villages and only now having basic mobile phones, let alone Internet-enabled ones, the power of technology to mobilise mass opposition is limited.

However, in the former British colony where more than 80 percent of the population is Christian, the words of the church carry enormous weight -- and the death of 18 anti-government protesters in clashes with police this week has spurred the institution into action.

In a statement, the head of the Catholic church, Bishop Joseph Zuza, lamented the loss of life and called on Mutharika to "listen attentively and honestly to the cry of Malawians".

Protest organisers have given Mutharika until August 16 to sit down to discuss their grievances, in particular the chronic lack of foreign exchange and fuel that is making official projections of 6.6 economic growth this year look fanciful.

The self-styled "Economist-in-Chief", first elected in 2004, has shown no sign of bowing to the demands, but history suggests the moral authority of the church, and its ability to sway rural voters ahead of a 2014 election, may cause him to relent.

The clergy played a crucial role in the early 1990s in the downfall of Hastings Banda, the UK-trained medical doctor who ruled Malawi with an iron fist for its first three decades after independence in 1964.

"When the people are being afflicted, the church needs to come out," Father Symon Matumbo, pastor of St. Peter's Church in Lilongwe, told Reuters after Saturday morning mass.   Continued...

Powered by Reuters AlertNet. AlertNet provides news, images and insight from the world's disasters and conflicts and is brought to you by Reuters Foundation.