METHODIST Bishop Emilio Miguel de Carvalho is an independent voice in a Marxist-Leninist state torn apart by 15 years of civil war: ``I am too much of a religious militant to be accepted as a party member,'' says the bishop in his office in downtown Luanda. Now that the government is preparing to sanction the formation of opposition political parties, churches - which kept a low profile in the atheist state - are under pressure to take sides.
Bishop De Carvalho's views reflect a credibility and a sense of continuity that are rare in a society where party and state have become indistinguishable. As Angola reaches out toward democracy, the enduring values that De Carvalho represents could provide a vital bridge between the old order and the new.
Now that the government is preparing to sanction the formation of opposition political parties, men like De Carvalho are acquiring a higher profile. He recently became the first African to be elected President of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, and could emerge as an honest broker as this tragic land begins to heal itself.
De Carvalho and others are being seen more frequently on state-owned television, and their moral authority is being actively sought to advance the peace process and promote reconciliation in a deeply divided country.
``I think it should be left to every individual member of the church to exercise his own political option,'' he says.
The natural choice for the churches in the new political lineup would be the Civic Association of Angola (ACA), the ``third force'' outside of the ruling MPLA and the Unita rebels.
The Association appears to contain the seeds of a Christian democratic party and has already attracted interest from Western countries and the churches.
``I am not going to tell the Methodists to become members of a political party,'' insists De Carvalho. He is also wary of a repetition of the proliferation of parties which emerged to fill the vacuum left by the sudden departure of the Portuguese colonialists in 1975.
``I don't think they should allow more than five or six political parties,'' he says. ``A multi-party system is not the African method of conducting politics. The parliamentary type of democracy is still to be tested in Africa - no country has it.''
Beyond the confines of party politics, De Carvalho is an ardent advocate of political change. ``The world is changing and we, too, have to change now,'' he says. ``We cannot live continually isolated from the rest of the world.''
But, for Bishop De Carvalho, the rest of the world is changing too fast. ``Even the Soviets - the No. 1 communists - are in love with the Americans now,'' he says with a disbelieving expression on his face. He is wary of the newfound cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union., and Soviet intentions generally: ``Are they plotting something new?''
He is also uneasy at the speed with which 50,000 Cuban mercenaries have been forced to withdraw from Angola by international accords imposed by the two superpowers. (The remaining 12,000 Cubans must withdraw by the end of June, under the terms of an international agreement brokered by the US.)
``The Cubans have made a tremendous contribution to Angola since 1975 - both in education and military assistance - in a way no other country has done,'' says the bishop. ``The medical specialists and teachers were operating in areas where even Angolans would refuse to go. I never understood why Cuban teachers and doctors had to leave as well,'' he says.
De Carvalho, who has traveled extensively in areas considered strongholds of the Unita rebels, believes most Angolans are prepared to accept changes because they are tired of war.
``We are ready to accept the Unita people here in Luanda,'' he says. But he is angry about continued rebel attacks on the outskirts of the city. Angolan citizens are still being killed daily.
``Nobody trusts Unita because they kill,'' says De Carvalho, conceding that ending the war will not happen overnight. ``In a war situation, a civilian's trust in a military uniform depends on how much the soldier wants to look after people's security.''
He supports the settlement plan for a cease-fire followed by the creation of a single national army and elections for a new parliament. But he rejects the 12-month time-frame being demanded by Unita, favoring the two- to three-year transition favored by the MPLA. ``It will take time to disarm people,'' he says. ``Thousands of people in Luanda alone own machine-guns.''
He is convinced the country will need a period of healing before it is ready to move to true democracy. ``Peace is not only the absence of war,'' he says. ``But it is a first step to creating peace. After the war is over, we have to heal the wounds.''
De Carvalho is acutely aware of how 30 years of war - 15 of liberation struggle and 15 of civil war - have affected the country. ``My nephew, who is in his 30s, is a lieutenant-colonel in the [Angolan] Army,'' he says. ``He has known nothing else but war since he left school. War has been his whole life.''
A greater political openness in the past few years has benefited the church. The changes include formal recognition of 14 churches - including the powerful Roman Catholic Church - and a policy of allowing the church to own land.
He also has strong reservations about the imposition of Western-style political systems in Africa generally.
``There are too many demands from the Americans. With the political changes that have taken place, the Americans have got what they want: The Cubans are going home. Namibia is independent. What more does the US want?'' The bishop insists that it can no longer be the threat of communism that is motivating the US because American leaders are cooperating increasingly with the Soviets.
``We applaud the peace initiative, but it is taking too long,'' he says, pausing to weigh his words. ``There is too much foreign influence. We Africans don't take so long.''