KINSHASA - The task of preventing Democratic Republic of Congo's political crisis from spiraling into fresh conflict falls to the country's Catholic Church, one of the few institutions to emerge from decades of turmoil with its credibility intact.
The role as mediator of last resort illustrates the clout of the Church in Congo — home to some 30 million faithful — where Catholic leaders have long gone beyond their pastoral duties to fill the void left by an absent state, providing health care and schooling, and promoting human rights and democracy.
In October, Congo's President Joseph Kabila appeared to have secured the backing of regional leaders for an African Union-mediated deal with some opposition leaders to remain in power until April 2018, a year and a half after his second and last term in office ends.
However, heavyweight rivals such as veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi and millionaire businessman Moise Katumbi boycotted the process, insisting Kabila step aside this month.
Diplomatic and political sources said neighboring leaders delivered a clear message to Kabila in private at a summit in Angola — seek help from CENCO, the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Congo, to get more rivals on board, or risk major unrest.
"No one is better positioned today to be the honest broker. Not the discredited AU, nor the West," said Pascal Kambale, a Congolese human rights lawyer working for the Open Society Foundations.
Since then, Congo's bishops have spent a month shuttling between rival camps in a bid to bridge the gap between those who signed the Oct. 18 AU-backed deal and those holding out.
CENCO is in a race to secure a deal ahead of Dec. 19, the official deadline for Kabila to leave power.
Citing a ruling in May by Congo's highest court, Kabila's camp says the president can remain in office until a new president is elected. Opposition leaders, and many on the streets of Kinshasa, the fiercely anti-Kabila capital, say he must give way to an interim administration.
Tension is ramping up, with hard-line opposition supporters threatening protests, and Kabila's camp, in return, accusing them of preparing insurrection. United Nations peacekeepers have shifted some troops to the city in anticipation of trouble and many expatriates are temporarily moving families abroad.
Tom Perriello, the United States special envoy to the region and one of the strongest international voices calling for Kabila to respect the constitution, told Congress last week CENCO's mediation was the best chance of avoiding wide-scale violence but warned it was working on "borrowed time."
CENCO issued a statement on Dec. 2 cautioning that the gap between the sides remained wide despite weeks of talks, with issues ranging from the basic interpretation of respecting the constitution to the timing and financing of elections.
"The situation is critical," it said. "CENCO ... calls on all sides to show responsibility and good will to prevent our country from slipping into an uncontrollable situation. May the Virgin Mary intervene for our people and our country."
Leopold to Mobutu
When King Leopold II ran Congo as a private fiefdom, he depended heavily on the Catholic Church to help administer the vast territory. In return, the Church was free to evangelize.
Under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, efforts to replace legacies of colonial rule with local culture saw the Church's authority challenged, but economic crisis and mismanagement meant Catholics still substituted for the state in many places, providing education and health care to millions.
In the 1990s, the Church took a more active role in politics, challenging Mobutu as well as playing a leading role in a national dialogue with similarities to the present political process. In 1992, security forces opened fire on a Catholic-led pro-democracy protest, killing at least 20 people.
Keen to maintain a healthy relationship with the Church, Congo signed a bilateral treaty with the Vatican this year that will return property confiscated under Mobutu, give the Church customs exemptions and shield the Church from government.
In Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, Congo has one of the most senior African bishops advising the pope on reforms of the Catholic Church. Like the pope, the Vatican's ambassador to Kinshasa is an Argentine and the pair are close, diplomats say.
"Kabila doesn't want to be seen to be on the wrong side of the Church," a Kinshasa-based diplomat told Reuters.
For all its clout, however, the Catholic Church has long trod carefully in the minefield of Congolese politics.
On the one side, it has been prepared to take a firm line tackling corruption and standing up for democracy and human rights. But it has also found itself reined in and seeking compromise. This is in part due to internal divisions but also down to fears of being blamed for violence or hijacked by opposition leaders riding on its broad following.
Never has this been clearer than during the 2011 elections, when CENCO's network of 30,000 observers gave it the best-informed view of the vote. After Kabila was declared winner, the Church called for the results to be corrected.
Kambale said CENCO was deeply divided, with many bishops keen to publish results that would have challenged the official tally but leaders from the east against the idea.
"In the end, they decided that the unity of the church was more important than the truth. I think they are now agonizing over this," he said.
Pope direct with Kabila
By 2014, a number of pro-Kabila politicians were floating the idea of tinkering with the constitution to allow the president to stay in power.
While visiting the Vatican, Congo's Catholic bishops issued an open letter against any such initiative. As Mobutu did before him, Kabila's government accused the bishops of straying beyond their ecclesiastical role and pandering to foreign influences.
When it became clear this year's elections would be delayed, Catholic leaders planned a major march for February 2016 to remember those killed in 1992. In the end, CENCO called it off, officially due to concerns the event would be hijacked by politicians.
Pressure from Rome also played a role, according to the diplomat. "They were reined in as they were seen to be too close to the opposition."
CENCO supported the AU-mediated talks but pulled out after security forces killed dozens of protesters in September. CENCO then also called for the deal to be renegotiated to make it more inclusive and clarify that Kabila cannot stand for re-election.
Soon after the deaths, Kabila, an Anglican, flew to Rome.
The pope was "direct and chilly," a senior Vatican source told Reuters, adding: "The pope told him to follow your constitution and do things that are in the best interests of your people."
Diplomats say CENCO has secured some concessions in talks, including opposition recognition that Kabila could remain in power until the delayed vote, but blockages remain over when it would be held and the lack of a clear statement from Kabila not to engineer a possible re-election.
The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Monday supporting CENCO's efforts and opposition leaders have said they are open to further talks to break the deadlock.
However, there have been mixed messages from Kabila's side.
Kabila met CENCO for the first time Monday and his office said he was fully supportive of CENCO's efforts. Over the weekend, though, Kabila's political coalition had said it believed CENCO's initiative had failed and no more time should be wasted.
"Kabila's camp is still convinced that they can repress anything on the streets and keep on going," an official close to the CENCO mediation effort said, asking not to be named.