Bishops in Senegal have appealed for an end to violence after at least eight people died and hundreds were arrested in street protests over the detention of an opposition leader.

The bishops March 8 called on citizens “to show reason, wisdom and civility in the nation’s best interests” and the common good during the current political crisis.

The appeal came as police used tear gas against civilians during nationwide protests over the arrest on rape and public disorder charges of Ousmane Sonko, a leading opposition figure to President Macky Sall.

“The serious events shaking our country, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, have shown how we can switch to a blind violence, threatening our social cohesion, if we allow ourselves to be dominated by passions and personal interests,” said the appeal, signed by Archbishop Benjamin Ndiaye of Dakar on behalf of his fellow bishops.

The Catholic church’s seven dioceses account for a small minority of the 17.2 million inhabitants of Senegal, which became independent of France in 1960 and is predominantly Muslim.

In a March 8 televised address, Sall said he understood current hardships and was open to dialogue with opponents, but he warned that the looting of shops and businesses by young demonstrators in Dakar and elsewhere would merely “aggravate poverty.”

However, protesters said the arrest of Sonko was intended to bar him from competing in the country’s 2024 elections.

The opposition leader, who posted bail and was released March 8 after five days in custody, has urged supporters to continue the protests, which have left schools closed until March 15.

In their appeal, the bishops said they stood “in full solidarity” with the population, adding that young people expected their elders to “pass on ideals of truth, righteousness, justice, understanding and peace.”

They also warned that “indiscriminate violence” had already inflicted grave injuries, while public and private property had been “ransacked, looted and stolen, without any moral or ethical consideration,” worsening the plight of poor families.

“Let’s stop this cycle of violence! By defending our rights and assuming our duties, we can and must create conditions for a better life together,” the Senegalese bishops said.

The United States, France and African Union have expressed concern over the unrest, while Amnesty International has called on the Senegalese government to explain the deaths of demonstrators and human rights abuses.