BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (CNS) — Catholic bishops in the Republic of Congo voiced “grave reservations” about the fairness of the March 21 presidential election, in which 77-year-old President Denis Sassou-Nguesso seeks a new term after 37 years in power.

True democracy includes political competition and an independent electoral system, the bishops said. Sassou-Nguesso, who has ruled continuously since 1997, and also held the presidency from 1979 to 1992.

The Republic of Congo has voter rolls that include dead people and lacks an “independent and credible electoral commission,” said the Feb. 2 statement from the 10-member bishops’ conference. Citing doubts about organization and safety, several opposition candidates pulled out ahead of the Feb. 7 election registration deadline.

“Our people are tired of elections which merely weaken social cohesion and tarnish our country’s image abroad,” the bishops said. They suggested Sassou-Nguesso prioritize the people’s needs for “water, electricity, health, education and transport” and fight “corruption, injustice and impunity.”

“Well aware of anxieties about an uncertain future, we urge God’s people to commit to building a free and prosperous democratic nation,” the bishops said. They also called on the international community and development partners to condition all cooperation “on democracy, respect for human rights and a favorable civic space with guaranteed participation.”

Patrick-Gabriel Dion, spokesman for the governing Congolese Labor Party, accused the bishops’ conference of misrepresenting the country’s problems and “playing the opposition’s game.”

“Where were the bishops during the five years they said nothing?” the politician asked Germany’s Deutsche Welle Feb. 3. “Instead, they’re doing it today on the eve of an election — this is populist, knowing what’s at stake in a presidential election. It’s a collection of everything the opposition says 24 hours a day.”

Archbishop Victor Abagna Mossa of Owando, spokesman for the bishops’ conference, told Radio France Internationale Feb. 3 Congo’s bishops would encourage Catholics to form a “chain of prayer for peace, well-being and true dialogue” in their parishes and to be “vigilant in documenting every violation of human dignity.”

“The Congolese are afraid — we fear the peace we want most won’t be there,” the archbishop said. “We haven’t found a solution, but we can at least show why this way of acting isn’t right.”