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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 Aug. 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.
"We should not wait for things to come to the worst. The government needs to listen to the voice of the people, understand the issues over foreign exchange and fuel."
In the cities, where cars queue round the block for scare fuel, Mutharika's reputation has taken a major knock.
As well as open expressions of dissent on the streets, Malawi's private media are in full cry, reflecting the police beating dished out to six journalists during this week's crackdown, and the temporary closure of several radio stations.
"This government has simply lost it," Nation newspaper columnist George Kasakula wrote in a scathing editorial that compared Mutharika to the Roman emperor Nero, who, according to legend, merrily played the violin while his capital burned.
"As hundreds of Malawians took to the streets - he decided to give us a public lecture," Kasakula wrote.
"If that was his way of solving the problems Malawians have been living with for the past several months, it was way off the mark."
Emboldened by this week's bloodshed, young men talk freely of their desire to "fight for democracy", but even in the capital it is clear Malawi is far from fertile ground for a sub-Saharan Facebook revolution.
"Most people come here just to use Skype to chat to their friends outside the country," said Shafqat Kathia, a Pakistani Internet cafe owner.
"Phone calls are just too expensive."
(Additional reporting by Frank Phiri; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Sophie Hares)
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