YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Caritas, the humanitarian arm of the Catholic Church in the African nation of Mali, is set to deploy 513 election observers during a presidential election scheduled for July 29. The observers were trained from July 12-13 at a workshop in Badalabougou by the Secretary General of Caritas Mali, layman Théodore Togo.

Since 2013, Caritas has been involved in elections monitoring in the troubled African country. It deployed 353 observers during that year’s presidential election, and 428 during legislative elections in the same year.

Togo says his organization wants to “contribute to making the social climate more peaceful and improve the electoral process in 2018.”

Caritas’s contribution as an election monitor, he said, has been praised both by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, and is now being “recognized by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, [as well as] public authorities and the international community.”

He said the tense social and political climate in Mali means there’s heightened need for “elections to be transparent and credible.”

“The political situation has worsened,” Togo said. “In 2013 it was the north of the country that was in crisis, [but] the situation has today spread to the center, making free movement of people difficult.”

At the moment, Mali faces the risk of conquest by Islamist Jihadists in a spirited campaign to install Sharia law, and in the process, hundreds of people have been killed. According to the UN, the government has lost control over some of its own territory, with a very limited state presence in some areas.

In 2013, French troops joined Malian soldiers in efforts to free the north of the country that had been overrun by Jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda, but while that effort was underway, other terrorist groups turned to the Sahel region of Central and Southern Mali.

The UN has said the humanitarian and human rights situation in Mali has “deteriorated,” with more people already killed in the country so far this year than in all of 2017. Over 650 schools have been shuttered by terrorists, under the slogan that “there should be no education but Islam.”

With parts of the country partly in the hands of Jihadists, many cynics wonder how the July 29 election will respect international standards.

“One is tempted to believe the election will be conducted under difficult circumstances,” Togo says, but he insisted it’s not yet hopeless.

“Despite these difficulties, Caritas Mali is not discouraged. We will continue to accompany the government in the organization and conduct of the general election in 2018,” Togo said.

“That’s why we organized this training. We want to bring our election observers up to date with the electoral law and continue to guarantee a transparent, equitable, and peaceful electoral process that conforms to international standards.”

He said the Caritas training highlights the stakes and challenges of the election, explaining the nitty-gritty of the electoral law, including: Institutions of the republic and the rights and responsibilities of the president; the Constitutional Court as well as the role and responsibilities of Caritas observers.

The efforts from Caritas-Mali, observers say, reflect the general stance of the Catholic Church ahead of the election. In a May 9 pastoral letter, the bishops appealed to the consciences of Malians, calling on each citizen to be ready to pay the supreme sacrifice for the interest of the country.

“Our common heritage—Mali – must take precedence over individual and personal interests,” the bishops wrote.

“We want to tell Malians that they have a duty to serve Mali, not to be served by Mali. By rendering services to their Malian brothers and sisters, they are rendering services to God.”

The bishops also called on Malians to vote according to their consciences.

“Avoid voting according to the directives of another person, because such directives infantilize you. If you make a mistake in your vote, it should be a result of your conviction,” they said.

The Secretary General of the Mali Bishop’s Conference, Father Alexandre Denou, called for “a new mentality for a new Mali,” exhorting all Malians to vote and calling on the organizers of the election to exercise transparency.

“This year, we are called upon to allow God to fashion in us a new mentality for a new Mali. This call is even more important for the Church, because this election coincides with the celebration of the 130th anniversary of the Church in Mali,” Denou said.

Yet the dire security situation in the country gives room to fears that the election will make little practical difference, or that it could even exacerbate an already precarious situation. A peace accord signed in 2015 still has to be meaningfully implemented, and the country remains ethnically fractured.

The election will involve some two dozen candidates, but incumbent president Ibrahima Boubacar Keita, who took office in 2013, and opposition frontrunner Somalia Cisse, remain the two major contenders.