YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – As Congo extended voting in national elections late Wednesday due to difficulties with polling stations either opening late or not at all, and amid opposition warnings of fraud and calls for a complete rerun, a bishop was calling on voters not to be bought off.

Voters should rely on their “inner freedom,” said Bishop François Abeli Muhoya Mutchapa of Kindu, “without letting our conscience be shackled and our vote influenced by goods received neither during the election campaign period, nor by false promises, still less by tribal, regional or religious pressure.”

He said the fate of the Congolese people over the next five years will be determined by the choices they make, and not on “ephemeral goods or demagogic speeches influencing our choice.”

“Through this act of voting, we are called upon to severely punish those who have mismanaged public affairs or shown themselves to be incompetent,” Abeli said.

In a statement late Wednesday, the head of Congo’s national elections commission acknowledged that some polling stations had opened late Wednesday and others never opened at all, explaining that voting would be extended in the affected centers. Opposition candidates, however, insisted that extending the vote could be a pretext for fraud, arguing that the elections commission had no legal right to change the deadline.

Catholic leaders, including a spokesperson for the national bishops’ conference, also came out in opposition to extending the deadline ahead of the announcement from the electoral commission.

The church has long played an important political role in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast country of around 112 million people where almost half the population, some 60 million people, are Catholics.

The challenges of staging elections in such a physically large space are enormous. The country spans almost a million square miles, a surface area larger than France, and the distance from east to west is equivalent to the distance between Brest and Warsaw.

There are 43 million registered voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are being called to vote in presidential, legislative and municipal elections. According to the Independent Elections Commission, there’s a staggering total of 100,000 candidates contesting those races, and some 75,000 polling stations scattered around the country.

Abeli urged Congolese citizens to participate in the process, calling voting “an act of great importance to chart the future and true development of our nation. It is a civic duty for every Christian.”

“Your vote at the polling station counts in building or destroying our country. Refusing to vote or voting badly is an act of irresponsibility and lack of love for the fatherland,” he said.

The 49-year-old prelate also said the elections are an opportunity to “renew our confidence, by re-electing those who have done a good job, if any. Otherwise, let’s give a mandate to new leaders who have demonstrated a sense of the common good, love of country and generosity in their plans for society.”

Abeli cautioned against violence before, during and after the elections, even as he invited voters to not leave polling stations before all the votes had been counted and the results proclaimed.

During the 2018 elections, the Catholic Church deployed 40,000 observers to monitor the elections across the country. The church also stood up against the appointment of Denis Kadima as president of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) on grounds that he was too close to President Felix Tshisekedi.

Monsignor Donatien Nshole, spokesperson of the Congo Bishops’ Conference (CENCO), said in a video interview with French news outfit Le Monde that the Church’s involvement in the country’s electoral politics is to “contribute to the consolidation of democracy.”

“All that the Church is doing is to be at the service of the human being, and elections are at the heart of systems that lead to good governance so that all those who are in power understand that to stay or regain power, they have to satisfy the population by putting the human being at the center of governance,” Nshole said.

Responding to criticism that the Catholic Church in the DRC is too involved in politics instead of concentrating on the spiritual life of the people, Nshole responded that he sees no contradiction.

“Of course, the main mission of the Church is to evangelize, but the person being evangelized is not only a spiritual being. He must be considered in his integral being.”

Nshole said the Church was doing Christ’s mission to spread good news to the poor, but also to “free the captives,” including those who are thirsty, hungry, homeless, and who suffer from bad governance.

“The bishops are committed to the promotion of human dignity and that also includes the political sector,” he said.

The most important of Wednesday’s elections is the presidential race in which 19 odd candidates are vying for the top job. Opposition leader Moïse Katumbi is seen as the main challenger to incumbent Félix Tshisekedi.

All 19 candidates have made the same promises to the electorate: To create jobs, to put an end to the violence to the eastern part of the country and to develop more infrastructure.

The DRC is arguably one of the world’s richest nations in terms of raw materials, but paradoxically it is also one of the poorest , with the World Bank estimating that last year, nearly 62 percent of Congolese, around 60 million people, lived on less than $2.15 a day.