Congo’s top Catholic official dies in Belgium

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BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) – Congo’s top Roman Catholic prelate Cardinal Frederic Etsou-Nzabi-Bamungwabi has died in a Belgian hospital, church officials said Sunday. He was 76.

Etsou died Saturday in the University Hospital in Leuven, east of Brussels, according to the Scheut Fathers, a Brussels-based missionary order. Etsou, the Archbishop of Kinshasa since 1990 and a cardinal since 1991, had been staying with the order in the Belgian capital when he was rushed to the hospital two weeks ago with pneumonia.

In the Congolese capital, newly elected President Joseph Kabila declared that a national day of mourning will be held for Etsou on the day of his burial, which has not yet been set.

“His time as head of the archdiocese of Kinshasa must serve as an inspiration for the Church and for all christianity,” Kabila said in a statement.

Etsou was born in 1930 in what was then the Belgian Congo. Educated by Catholic missionaries, he entered the priesthood in 1958.

He studied sociology and theology in France and Belgium before returning to Congo in the late 1960s.

About half of Congo’s 63 million people are Catholic. The Church is a powerful institution in the vast central African country which has been afflicted by decades of dictatorship and civil war since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960.

Comments by Etsou provoked controversy last year during Congo’s first democratic elections in almost 50 years. In a radio interview, he appeared to back the claims of opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba that international forces were seeking to ensure Kabila’s victory.

“I ask the international community to abstain from all attempts to impose on the people of Congo he whom they have not chosen as their president,” Etsou told Radio France Internationale while the votes were being counted in November and partial results already gave Kabila the lead.

His comments provoked anger from Abbe Appollinaire Malu Malu, a leading cleric who chaired Congo’s Independent Electoral Commission. “We are astonished to hear these declarations,” Malu Malu said at the time, adding that Etsou’s comment “is a dangerous declaration that does not correspond to reality.”

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