YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Togo’s bishops have been blasted by the country’s human rights minister for allegedly meddling in politics.

Christian Trimua on Feb. 9 said he was “surprised” the West African country’s bishops’ conference was silent in the face of the political activities of Archbishop Philippe Kpodzro, the retired head of the Lomé archdiocese.

The prelate has been openly supporting opposition candidate Agbéyomé Kodjo in the Feb. 22 presidential election.

Kodjo is running as the candidate of Les Forces Democratiques (“The Democratic Forces”), a coalition of several opposition parties and civil society organizations, which Kpodzro helped organize.

The candidate’s campaign posters also feature the archbishop, who has accompanied the candidate on the campaign trail and held Masses in his honor.

On Feb. 2, during a thanksgiving Mass in the Saint Kizito Church in Lomé, Kpodzro presented the Togolese flag to Kodjo, who now claims to be the “Kpodzro dynamic” for “the cause of the afflicted, the sick, the those behind.”

Trimua acknowledged church involvement in politics wasn’t specific to Togo, but suggested the Church in Togo was overstepping its bounds.

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“The Togolese peculiarity is that of it as a Catholic prelate who supports candidates, who enthrone them during Mass in the Church by giving them the flag, by singing the national anthem,” the government minister said.

He accused the Togo bishops of “clumsily” copying their counterparts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the bishops are seen as the only national body with the people’s trust, which gives them a lot of political power.

“We were surprised to see that the episcopal conference in Togo did not take a firm stance by telling their prelate not to mix things up. Togo still has a separation of church and state and Togo is a secular country,” Trimua said.

The minister said when the Church takes a political stance, it loses its credibility as a neutral arbiter.

Several observers said Trimua was providing cover for the government’s rejection of a request by the justice and peace commission of the bishops’ conference to deploy around 9,000 observers for the Feb. 22 poll.

Togo’s Minister of Territorial Administration, Payadowa Boukpessi, accused the bishops of being biased, and said the proposed election observers would not be impartial.

In a letter rejecting the proposal, Boukpessi said that since 2017, the bishops have always taken positions that align with those of the opposition.

“The latest Nov. 21, 2019 message of the Togo Episcopal Conference is a perfect illustration of this, since, like all other declarations, the Togo Episcopal Conference has also taken up on its own accord the opposition’s demands, notably on the (reforms) of the Independent Electoral Commission, CENI, the Constitutional Court, the electoral code, thus disregarding the electoral laws in force in our country,” the minister wrote.

Boukpessi then questioned the sources of financing for the Justice and Peace Commission and insinuated that it could be funded by people who have little interest in the good of Togo.

“The refusal to disclose your sources of funding is proof that this operation is remotely controlled by one or more organizations that you do not want to disclose, for reasons we do not know,” he said.

The accusation is not a new one, and the bishops firmly rejected the accusation of improper funding.

“We strongly reaffirm that there is no questionable funding for the activities of the Episcopal Council for Justice and Peace and that our messages are dictated by fidelity to the Gospel and the search for the common good,” the bishops said in a written statement.

The bishops also said they had always cautioned their priests against taking partisan positions that could compromise the integrity of the Church.

The bishops’ conference distanced itself from the activities of Kpodzro, saying it is not responsible for “messages that it has not published.”

It further explained that the bishops’ official statements come “through pastoral letters, messages, declarations and the press releases signed by all the bishops or by the secretary general on their behalf.’’

President Faure Gnassingbé has been in office since 2005, following the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadema. Eyadema had ruled Togo for 38 years, ever since he overthrew the country’s second president, Nicolas Grunitzky, in a coup d’état in 1967.

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