LILONGWE, Malawi - Malawi's second largest church group urged President Bakili Muluzi on Monday to protect the country's young democracy and step down when his second and final term expires in 2004.
Some members of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) are already campaigning to extend Muluzi's rule beyond the current two-term constitutional limit.
In a letter to Muluzi, the three-million-member Church of Central Africa (Presbyterian) warned that subverting the constitution would damage the country's relations with key foreign aid donors.
"Our democracy is almost the only asset we have to attract donor money and foreign investment. Destroying that asset means economic strangulation with disastrous consequences," the church said in the letter, which was also circulated to its members.
Malawi, a former British colony, embraced pluralist democracy in 1994 when Muluzi ended three decades of one-party dictatorship under late president Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
"It is the same personality cult Muluzi and his hangers-on are trying to cultivate that was the metamorphosis that changed Dr Kamuzu Banda from a champion of independence struggle in Africa into one of the most cruel dictators on the continent," the church group said.
Muluzi, who was re-elected to another five-year term in 1999, has not commented on the issue. But government officials said it was too early to discuss the 2004 race.
"While people are free to comment on the third term issue, the document (pastoral letter) argued as if the government had already decided to amend the constitution, which is not the case," Justice Minister Peter Fachi told Reuters.
Malawi's Catholic bishops warned earlier this month that any move to re-write the country's constitution threatened basic democratic principles in the poor southern African country.
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