YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya has declared he is not a candidate for the presidency of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, saying he “has other things to do.”

The country is preparing for general elections on December 23, and a newly-formed group calling itself the Christian Dynamic for Unity and Democracy (DCUD) has launched a petition calling on Monsengwo, the Archbishop of Kinshasa and member of Pope Francis’s powerful C9 Council of Cardinals, to challenge President Joseph Kabila at the poll.

The organization — bringing together several lay Christian groups – has said the cardinal as the only person with the “credibility” to stand against the incumbent.

A recent public opinion poll named Monsengwo as the most respected person in the country, and the one most people wanted to lead the nation through any transitional post-Kabila era.

The spokesperson for the DCUD, Serge Gontcho said Monsengwo constituted “a sure and credible alternative to ensure a peaceful alternation of power at the presidency in the DRC” in an interview with Radio Okapi, a Catholic station.

Gontcho said the actions of political actors since independence in 1960 have left a trail of bitterness among the people of the African country.

“The current government hasn’t succeeded, and the opposition isn’t proposing an alternative. They are more concerned with destroying each other. To build a Congo for our children, all those who have not succeeded should be kept aside and replaced with a new force. That is why we thought about Cardinal Monsengwa who is very much accepted by the people,” Gontcho said.

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A major stumbling block – in addition to the cardinal’s declaration he is not a candidate – are Church prohibitions against clerics holding political office. Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez had been Bishop of San Pedro in Paraguay before deciding to run for president of the South American country. After his election, he was laicized by the Vatican.

Gontcho said nothing should keep a prelate from seeking office, adding “Cardinal Monsengwo unites everyone around him – both those in power and those in the opposition.”

Another opposition leader, Médard Kankolongo of the Congo en Marche (Congo on the Move) party, has also called on the cardinal to run for president.

He said Monsengwo can’t turn down “this distress call that the suffering people of Congo have made,” adding the hope the mobilization of Catholic observers will “put an end to electoral fraud in the future.”

Also supporting a Monsengwo candidacy is the L’Union Pour la Nation Congolaise (Union for the Congolese Nation), or UNC, whose leader has urged the cardinal to “accept the people’s call.”

Catholic lay organizations – often with clerical support – have been leading protests against the government since a 2016 Church-organized accord between the government and opposition collapsed in 2017.

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.

The elections never took place, and Kabila continues in office.

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 esteem.

Despite the growing effort to draft Monsengwo to run for the presidency, the move is opposed by the Lay Coordination Committee (CLC) of the Catholic Church, which has been organizing most of the public demonstrations against Kabila’s continued stay in power.

The spokesperson for the committee, Jonas Tshomba, said the move was engineered by those in power with the intension of distracting the population.

“We believe that those in power are seeking to demobilize Christians who are ready for the protest march on August 12,” he said, noting that Kabila is still banned from seeking a new term of office.

“We see this as an attempt to distract and disconnect us from the real problems facing the nation, such as elections. We are afraid this action is being put in place to demobilize people who would like to take part in future actions planned by the CLC to push for the implementation of the December Accord, and for the respect for the constitution; particularly a third mandate for the out-going president,” Tshomba said.

He said the bishops have been clear that Kabila should not run for office, a position confirmed by Father Donatien Nshole, the secretary general of the bishops’ conference.

“The country needs a new leadership, and with some will, it is still possible to organize a good election in the country,” the priest said.

Nshole also said the Church does not need to be at the center of politics.

“It’s the wrong interpretation to blame the Church for not being at the middle of the village. To be at the middle of the village doesn’t mean you must position yourself at the same distance from the other actors,” he said.

Still, the National Executive Secretary of the DCUD, Odette Babandoa, has pleaded with the Catholic Church to “give Cardinal Monsengwa freedom” to run for president, “for the good of the DRC and its stability.”

She said the Lay Coordination Committee would be doing greater good for the country by voting for the cardinal rather than organizing protests against Kabila.

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This isn’t the first time Monsengwo has been asked to take up a civil role in the country. During the final days of the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country then known as Zaire from 1965 to 1997, the then-Auxiliary Bishop of Kisangani headed the transitional “High Council of the Republic” – acting as the de facto national leader during the end of the regime.

He not only served as president of the council, which was charged with drafting a new constitution, but was named the transitional speaker of the national parliament in 1994.

The 78-year-old cardinal is already over the retirement age for bishops in the Catholic Church. In February, Francis appointed Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, the former head of the Archdiocese of Mbandka-Bikoro, as the “coadjutor” of Kinshasa, meaning he will automatically succeed Monsengwo as head of the diocese when he leaves office – no matter what the reason.