Catholic bishops in the Central African Republic warned most of their country is in the hands of armed bands and “ferocious mercenaries” and urged voters to find candidates who can free it “from oppression, misery and ignorance” in upcoming elections.

“God always saves, delivering the oppressed, liberating humanity and combating evil in all its forms,” said a pastoral letter from the bishops’ conference.

“But the powerful who oppress others deploy every means to protect their interests — and in Central Africa, our goodwill alone will not suffice to free us from our persecutors. We also need charismatic leaders, and significant and effective support from the international community in the name of universal humanism.”

The bishops’ letter was published Sept. 6 as rebel fighters abducted several police officials near the northwest border with Chad and Cameroon in what local media said was retaliation for arrests during a joint operation by the country’s army and U.N. peacekeepers.

Elections for president and national assembly are scheduled for Dec. 27.

The bishops said the Catholic Church welcomed attempts to deploy the state’s authority, despite local resistance, but cautioned that the country, one of the world’s poorest, had “lived on the edge of the abyss, without knowing real peace” since independence in 1960.

Armed gangs were still massacring innocent civilians, attacking state institutions and setting “parallel administrations” in violation of a peace accord, the bishops added.

“We note with bitterness that 70 percent to 80 percent of our country is still occupied by armed groups, with mercenaries as their most ferocious leaders, who are implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity, environmental crimes and large-scale pillage,” the bishops said.

“These warlords enjoy full privileges, including total freedom of movement and impunity, with guaranteed access to the authorities, taking pleasure in the business of war, with an economic model built from human blood.”

An eight-year conflict among rival militias has left a million people internally displaced and 400,000 seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

In February 2019, the bishops voiced skepticism toward a peace accord brokered in Sudan between Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera and representatives of 14 armed groups. The accord has been violated repeatedly.

In their Sept. 6 letter, the bishops appealed to young people, as the country’s “most important resource,” to show power depended “not on the barrel of a gun, but on values, ideas, social projects, contradictory debates and political convictions.”

It also urged women to play a leading role as “nourishing mothers of society and truthful, resolute actors for peace.”

“Without your civic, moral and spiritual engagement beside your families, and your political, economic and social leadership, our country would lack humanity,” the bishops told women.

“We therefore particularly call on you to mobilize and participate actively in the electoral process — as candidates, electors, educators and promoters of nonviolence in your districts and communities, and at every level where you can serve our country.”