KINSHASA (Reuters) - The influential Roman Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo urged President Joseph Kabila on Tuesday to respect constitutional terms limits and not seek reelection in the 2016 presidential election.
Speculation has been rife that Kabila will seek to modify the constitution, which limits a president to two consecutive five-year terms, but he has not said whether he will run.
The Congo Catholic bishops conference (CENCO) warned him that any attempt to change the constitution and remain in power could destabilize the mineral-rich nation which is still recovering from decades of political turmoil.
"To seek to violate these provisions would set a dangerous precedent on the long road to peace (and) national unity," read a CENCO statement published a day after Congo’s fifty-fourth independence anniversary celebrations. The message comes less than a month after international envoys from the United States, European Union, African Union and United Nations also urged Kabila to respect his constitutional obligations and to publish an elections timetable.
Catholics make up about half of Congo's population. In the absence of a coherent political opposition, the Church has been one of Kabila's more vocal and influential critics, especially following reports of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation during his 2011 election victory.
In their statement, the bishops urged Congolese to "be vigilant in opposing by all legal and peaceful means any attempt to modify the locked articles," referring to constitutional provisions that cannot be changed.
Having won elections in 2006 and 2011, Kabila’s final mandate expires in late 2016, but his political opponents fear he will seek to change article 220, which bans any change to the article setting out term limits.
CENCO also urged the government to provide the necessary financial and material resources to ensure that elections take place within the time-frame provided by the constitution, which would mean presidential elections no later than December 2016.
Lambert Mende, Congo's government spokesman, said after the warning by the international envoys that an electoral calendar would be decided upon within the deadlines set by the constitution.
(Reporting by Peter Jones; Editing by Bate Felix and Tom Heneghan)