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Congolese Mourn Politically-Charged Cardinal

  • Kari Barber

Citizens in the Democratic Republic of Congo are mourning the death of Cardinal Frédéric Etsou-Nzabi-Bamungwabi, the country's top Roman Catholic prelate. Cardinal Etsou died on January 6 of pneumonia in Belgium. As his body was returned for a scheduled burial in the Congo on Monday, mourners remembered him as a religious and political leader. Kari Barber has this report from our West Africa regional bureau.

Seventy-six-year-old Cardinal Frédéric Etsou-Nzabi-Bamungwabi is being remembered not only for his religious work as head of Congo's Roman Catholic Church, but also for the positions he took on political matters.

Last year, Cardinal Etsou raised concerns about Congo's first democratic elections in almost 50 years. He endorsed opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba's claims that international forces were seeking to ensure the victory of the interim president, Joseph Kabila, who was eventually declared the winner.

In an interview with Radio France Internationale last November, he said any international interference would be a "grave act of irresponsibility" that would undermine the prestige of the West.

Cardinal Estou held a unique position of power because the Catholic church is a powerful institution in Congo. About half of Congo's 63 million people are Catholic, and Catholic schools and clinics have stepped in where the state has faltered.

In the capital Kinshasa, many mourners attending prayer services talked about the role the cardinal played in Congo.

"He was not too critical," said one mourner. "He was not too close to the government. But he was following, as everyone else, everything that was happening in the Congo."

"He took part in the leading of the country," said a second mourner. "Sometimes there can be fires, but he played the role of an extinguisher with his morality - intervening in some way."

"I can only pray to God that he receives him, his soul, to heaven. Because I knew him as a very peaceful person and somebody who loved everyone," said another mourner.

In 1990, Cardinal Etsou took charge of Congo's Catholic Church in the final years of the rule of the longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. He became an important force denouncing the civil war that ousted Mobutu and later attempted to reconcile the country.

After Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, Cardinal Etsou spoke out against what he described as the strong-arm tactics of the new leader and former rebel Laurent Kabila.

Newly elected Congolese President Joseph Kabila has proclaimed a day of national mourning for Etsou's burial, which is expected to take place on Monday.

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