YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo have arrested ten priests and two nuns in the aftermath of Sunday’s protests against President Joseph Kabila.

According to local news reports, at least 200 persons – probably lay Christians – were also taken.

Church officials said Sunday’s protests also led to the deaths of at least six people, although government authorities claim only two people died from stray bullets.

The protests were called by Catholic lay associations, supported by the clergy, to pressure Kabila to step down. Similar protests in late December left at least seven people dead.

The bishops’ conference has condemned what it calls “the excessive use of force on demonstrators who were only armed with Bibles, rosaries and branches.”

The crackdown has been condemned world-wide, with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres calling on Congolese security forces to respect the people’s right to free speech and freedom of assembly.

“The Secretary-General urges the Congolese security forces to exercise restraint,” said a statement issued Jan. 22 by UN Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric.

Guterres also called on the Congolese authorities to carry out “credible investigations” into the incidents and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The Jan. 21 march had been banned by the authorities, and General Sylvano Kasongo Kitenge, the head of the Kinshasa police, visited Notre Dame Cathedral to enforce the order.

“The Mass is ended, priests must go back to their houses now and everyone has to go home. If you resist, we will use force and fire tear gas,” he reportedly told the crowd.

It was no empty threat – police forcibly tried to stop the demonstrations.

Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the capital’s archbishop, has compared the country to “a living hell.”

“We were dispersed by tear gas, stun grenades and live bullets. We have again seen deaths, injuries, priests being arrested, and the theft of citizens’ property,” Monsengwo said.

“Christians were prevented from praying. Others were prevented from leaving by… the police and military, who were armed as if they had been on a battlefield,” he said.

“How can you kill men, women, children, youths and old people all chanting religious songs, carrying Bibles, rosaries and crucifixes?” Monsengwo asked. “Are we now living in an open prison?”

In the absence of any credible opposition and a free press, the Catholic Church is emerging as the only credible voice that can speak up for the people of the Congo in the face of Kabila’s regime.

Catholics make up nearly half of Congo’s 80 million people, and the nation’s bishops are held in high respect by the people.

The Church operates much of the educational, medical, and social welfare infrastructure in the country, which has been plagued by conflicts for decades.

In November, the bishops’ conference said Congo’s National Electoral Commission had failed to prepare the country for elections, as agreed to in the Dec. 31, 2016, accord. Elections were supposed to take place by the end of 2016; the commission said they will now be postponed until December 2018.

Kabila has been in office for over 15 years, taking over from his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. In 2006, an election confirmed him in his post. He was re-elected for a second mandate in 2011.

After Kabila’s failure to step down after the end of his second term in December 2016, as mandated by the constitution, protests left dozens of people dead.

An agreement overseen by the Catholic hierarchy called for power sharing between Kabila’s party and opposition parties in the buildup to a presidential election at the end of December 2017, in which Kabila would not be a candidate.

Despite the accord, Kabila seems intent on staying in office.

The Church is still pushing for the immediate implementation of the agreement, seeing it as the only path for peaceful elections.

At the end of the general audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke out against the violence in the country.

“Unfortunately, troubling news continues to come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Therefore, I renew my call for everyone to commit to avoiding all forms of violence,” he said Jan. 24.

“On her part, the Church wants nothing other than to contribute to the peace and to the common good of society.”