Pope Francis received Congolese President Joseph Kabila in a private audience on Monday, with the Vatican calling upon the leader to ensure a peaceful transition to elections following deadly clashes.
The 79-year-old pontiff held a brief audience with Kabila, who has led Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 2001, on Monday. In a break with Vatican protocol, Francis did not greet Kabila in the reception room where he usually meets visiting heads of state, but waited for the Congolese president in his library.
A statement from the Holy See’s Press Office said the pair held “cordial discussions” that focused on recent clashes between security forces and anti-Kabila protesters.
Scores of people were killed when thousands of protesters gathered in the capital Kinshasa earlier in September to call for Kabila to step down when his mandate ends in December. DRC is scheduled to hold elections in November but the country’s electoral commission has said they will be delayed until 2017 at the earliest while the country’s voter register is updated, with DRC’s top court ruling in May that Kabila can stay in power in the interim.
Catholic bishops in the Central African country have threatened to pull out of a national dialogue, aimed at preparing the country for elections, if Kabila—who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term as president—tries to cling on to power. Around 50 percent of the Congolese population are Roman Catholic and the Catholic church has played an important role in the country’s attempt to transition to democracy.
Kabila’s press office said the Congolese leader left the Vatican on “a positive note” and that the visit had put the country “on a path to peace and national cohesion.”
The pair also discussed the continuing conflict in eastern DRC, according to the Vatican. A plethora of rebel groups, both Congolese and foreign, are battling for control of parts of the east of the vast country, with the city of Beni proving to be a particular flashpoint. More than 30 people were killed in a single weekend in August in an attack blamed by the government on Ugandan rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
The Vatican said that Pope Francis and President Kabila agreed on the need for urgent cooperation at national and international levels to deal with the insurgency in eastern DRC.