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Controversial Archbishop of Kinshasa Dies at 77

The Democratic Republic of Congo Monday buried Cardinal Frederic Etsou, the head of the country's Catholic church and only its second cardinal since independence. But his death, and controversial statements he made during historic elections last year, have sparked debate in the country over the church's role in Congo's fledgling democracy. Joe Bavier has more for VOA from Kinshasa.

There was not enough room in Kinshasa's 80,000 seat Martyrs' Stadium for Sunday's mass for the late Cardinal Frederic Etsou. The crowds spilled out onto stairs, walkways, and down entrance tunnels.

A giant video screen was set up in a parking lot across the street for those who could not get in. Millions more Congolese watched the mass live on television.

Much of predominantly Catholic Congo has been in mourning since the cardinal's death more than a week ago at a clinic in Belgium.

But his passing has also sparked political debate.

President Joseph Kabila was sworn into office on December 6, following the country's first democratic elections in more than 40 years.

But as results were due to be announced and losing candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba was claiming fraud last November, Cardinal Etsou made a statement calling into question the fairness of the polls. He criticized western nations, who heavily bankrolled the elections, for meddling in Congolese affairs and openly doubted the independence of the electoral commission.

It was a move that divided Congolese at the time and continues to do so even after his death.

"At least that last statement was not a good thing, and not at the right time," said Alain Muke, an English teacher and translator. "Especially because he came from the same province as one of the candidates. People considered that he was making that statement to backup Bemba. It was not a good thing."

The cardinal had previously caused controversy before the first round in July, telling Catholics to be prepared to boycott the vote if irregularities were not cleared up.

As Congo waits for a new cardinal to be chosen, some are now debating the roll of the church in the country's new democracy.

Lawyer Octavius Nasena says he thinks the Catholic Church should, and must, be active in Congolese politics.

"We know now that in France or the United States the two things are separated. But democracy is there. Development is there too. But what about in Congo or in Africa in general? In the United States or in France, I think we do not have the same vision of things," he said.

However, it is ironic, Nasena says, that the question is being raised over Cardinal Etsou, who was widely viewed as being less politically active than his predecessor, the late Cardinal Joseph Malula. Cardinal Malula, who headed the church during most of the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, was temporarily forced into exile due to conflicts with the late dictator.

Mamadou Diarra says that kind of opposition to injustice should be the role of the church.

"I'm a Muslim, but I grew up in a Christian country. When I think about all the power that the Catholic Church has over this country, for me it's a good thing if they can fight for the people, it's a good thing. If they do things on their own, that's where the problem is," added Diarra.

Cardinal Etsou was buried Monday at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Kinshasa. It is now up to Pope Benedict XVI to name his replacement.