Congo’s top archbishop pleads for peace on eve of election

Archbishop of Kinshasa, Fridolin Ambongo (AP)
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KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congo’s top archbishop on Saturday urged peace on the eve of the country’s long-delayed presidential election , saying differences of opinion are no reason to “light the country on fire.”

The archbishop of Kinshasa, Fridolin Ambongo, held a Mass in the capital attended by leading opposition candidate Martin Fayulu and a representative of ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. They and sole female candidate Marie-Josee Ifoku held hands during prayer in a spirit of reconciliation.

“Unfortunately, some of our compatriots give the impression they want to hold the country hostage to violence,” the archbishop told the congregation. He added: “In no case will we permit these elections to become another opportunity to destroy Congo and shed the blood of Congolese who have bled too much for decades already.”

He also criticized the surprise decision by Congo’s electoral commission to bar some 1 million people from voting because of a deadly Ebola virus outbreak, calling it a “denial of justice.”

The residents of Beni and Butembo cities now must vote in March, long after Congo’s new president is inaugurated. Two days of protests followed Wednesday’s announcement, and Congo’s health ministry and the World Health Organization said crucial virus containment work had to be suspended. The WHO chief warned against “prolonged insecurity,” saying a rise in new cases could follow.

The delay surprised many because Congo’s health ministry had said precautions were in place to allow people in the outbreak zone to vote, and that electoral authorities had been involved in discussions. The opposition calls the delay the latest attempt by the ruling party to ensure that departing President Joseph Kabila’s preferred successor, Shadary, is elected.

“Our brothers and sisters in Beni and Butembo say they feel betrayed and abandoned by their leaders and they are right in doing so,” the archbishop said. The Catholic church in Congo has been an outspoken critic of delays in the election, which was meant to take place in late 2016.

The archbishop urged Congolese to avoid confrontation and refrain from attacking health workers combating Ebola: “This would put public health at risk.”

Also attending the Mass was European Union Ambassador Bart Ouvry. Congo’s government on Thursday evening ordered him to leave the country within 48 hours in retaliation after the EU prolonged sanctions on Shadary.

Shadary faces a travel ban and asset freeze for a crackdown on people protesting election delays when he was interior minister. The sanctions have further cooled Congo’s relations with the West after international pressure over the elections, and EU and other Western election observers have not been invited to watch Sunday’s vote.

Shadary and other candidates met on Saturday with the electoral commission and the Southern African Development Community regional bloc as the sprawling country’s neighbors urge an election without violence.

Sunday’s vote could bring Congo’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960.