The Catholic Church has piled pressure on President Joseph Kabila to "respect the constitution" by stepping down from power when his mandate expires in December. They warned that if he does not, he risks triggering a tumultuous period in a country which has already witnessed political crackdown and bloodshed.

According to the Congolese constitution, presidents can only serve a maximum of two terms. Kabila assumed power in 2001 following the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, and is currently serving his second full term.

The church holds significant influence in a country where some 40% of the population is Catholic. A group of powerful bishops have renewed the church's calls for Kabila to leave office at the end of his mandate, saying it is vital that he "respects the constitution".

The religious leaders spoke of a worsening socio-economic and security situation in the country and voiced the concerns of the Congolese people, who are eagerly waiting to witness the country's first ever peaceful transition of power. "The people see themselves as being sacrificed on the altar of the politicians' interests," the bishops were quoted as saying by the Times. The vast country is two-thirds the size of Western Europe with a population of almost 80 million people.

Father Leonard Santedi, head of the National Conference of Bishops in Congo, called on Kabila to "accept the transfer of power as fundamental in a democracy". He warned: "Blocking the electoral process risks plunging the country into chaos."

The president has repeatedly been accused of trying to cling to power through violent political crackdowns and the targeting of Moise Katumbi, a presidential contender and former governor of the powerful Katanga province.

In May, Katumbi was charged with hiring foreign mercenaries in a bid to topple the government. Katumbi dismissed the allegations as "grotesque lies". In a separate case, Katumbi was sentenced in absentia to three years in jail and fined $1m (£747,000) on 22 June over a real estate dispute.

Speaking to Reuters, his lawyer said the court had "flagrantly violated the minimum standards of the process" by convicting Katumbi in absentia even though he had been given official permission to leave the country to seek medical treatment abroad.