Can history repeat itself?

President Bingu wa Mutharika met Catholic Bishops at the New State House to plead with them not to highlight his government’s shortfalls in their Lenten Letter, Nyasa Times has established.

A source at State House said Mutharika met the Bishops on January 28th from 8pm until the wee hours of the morning on January 29th.

“The discussion centered on the Lenten Letter. The President persuaded the Bishops not to tackle issues of poor governance, Section 65 and prolongation of Parliament in their pastoral letter,” said the source.

“Mutharika fears that these issues would seriously damage his credibility if the church voiced its criticism,” he said.

Catholic Secretariat and Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) sources have corroborated that the meeting of Bishops with the Head of State did indeed take place.

During the meeting, which included the head of the Catholic Church in Malawi, His Grace Archbishop Tarscious Ziyaye, Mutharika appealed to them to openly support his arrest crusade against opposition leaders, especially Moslems.

The Malawi Catholic clerics will release their annual Pastoral Letter at the end of the season of Lent, currently underway.

The release is called a Lenten Letter. Catholics were last Wednesday marked with ashes on their foreheads to draw them into forty days of intense spiritual work, as they prepare for the great Feast of Easter.

Mutharika was tipped that the Catholic Bishops had drafted a strongly worded letter reminiscent of the one, which challenged the prevailing culture of silence during the one-party dictatorship of Dr. Kamuzu Banda.

In the historical “Living Our Faith,” pastoral letter of 1992, the bishops reproached the Banda regime for its authoritarianism and lack of representative democracy; not as biased proponents of specific political groups but rather as champions of accountability, respect for human rights and human dignity.

“After a tip-off, Mutharika contacted his long-time pal, Bishop Felix Mkhori, to arrange an audience with all Catholic Bishops,” said a government official who helped in arranging the meeting.

The Presidential loose committee, which approached the Catholic Bishops, included Catholic ministers Henry Phoya of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and Clement Khembo of Persons with Disabilities.

Information Minister Patricia Kaliati, a Catholic, and ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) publicity secretary and aide to President on “national unity”, Nicholas Dausi, who is also a Catholic, were in the committee to strategize on wooing the Bishops to State House.

The Bishops agreed to sweep under the mat the issues that would expose Mutharika’s ills and pledged their support to the President as “a member of the church”.

Mutharika is a Roman Catholic who joined the church in 2003 because of politics in order to gain support from the huge Catholic community in the country.

However, an official at the Catholic secretariat said the Bishops are not supposed to play politics with the Lenten letter.

“The Church is supposed to promote Lent as a way of strengthening personal ties with God and grappling with social problems harming human dignity. Therefore, the Bishops should not be stampeded by political threats or otherwise abdicate

their role of listing social issues for Lantern action,” said an official.

He said the Bishops would do better to pacify the political problems in the country by emphasizing the link between Lent and the sacrament of reconciliation.

Another Catholic priest said President Mutharika, as a Catholic, should have taken advantage of this Lent period to be “nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ”.

“Mutharika as a Catholic should begin renouncing his sins and renewing his profession of faith. Easter is the great feast of the Resurrection,” said the priest who could not be named.

At a meeting in the Capital, Lilongwe in mid-January senior members of the church are reportedly to have resolved to support Mutharika in the 2009 polls because he is a Catholic.

However, a priestly secretary in the office of the Archdiocese of Blantyre said the bishops and some clerics moves, in dragging the church into partisan politics and siding with Mutharika and his ruling DPP, is regrettable.

“We urge our bishops to remain apolitical, neutral and proclaim the truth as was encouraged by the head of the church, Pope Benedict XVI when he met them in 2006.”

The priest said the bishops should give attention to proclaiming social and moral evils afflicting the nation other than taking political sides.

The bishops, on September 29, 2006, met with Pope Benedict when they were making their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican.

During the meeting they were encouraged to “proclaim the truth” about social and moral ills, including the spread of HIV/Aids, human trafficking and agricultural injustice and not backing political agenda.

“Never cease to proclaim the truth, and insist on it, in season and out of season … because the truth will set you free,” the priest quoted what Pope Benedict told the Malawi bishops.

Opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) blamed the Catholic bishops for “hypocrisy”.

“When government is breaching the law in this country, the Catholic Bishops never say anything. This smacks of hypocrisy on the part of the church in this country and their ideas are jaundiced,” Ishmael Chafukila, MCP spokesperson for parliamentary affairs, told Daily Times tabloid.

His Grace, Archbishop Ziyaye could not immediately comment on the matter.

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