Republic of Burundi 17 September 2015
Bishops and priests extremely concerned about the country after the presidential elections / many dead and injured / hundreds of thousands fleeing
It is with great concern that the Burundi Bishops’ Conference considers the present state of its country. In a current statement the bishops criticise the criminal actions and the “defamatory and threatening language in the political discussion”. The Schönstatt priest Déo Maruhukiro, observing from Germany, is increasingly concerned about what is happening in Burundi. From his secure position abroad he can speak openly. This is difficult in the country itself. “If you dare to criticise the government you will be called a putschist and you will have to fear for your life.”
“The prevailing climate is one of fear,” Father Maruhukiro, the Burundi priest living in Freiburg, reports in an interview with the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need. During the day life appeared to proceed normally he said, but nearly every night shots could be heard in many districts in the capital of Bujumbura and there were reports of fatalities and injured persons. It is difficult to get information because the private radio stations have been destroyed.
Since the announcement by the Burundi president, Pierre Nkurunziza, in April that he would stand for a third term of office – unconstitutionally – there have been repeated clashes in Bujumbura between the security forces and demonstrators. Father Maruhukiro appeals to the Burundi government, to the opposition and to civil society: “Resume the dialogue. That is the only way to prevent violence from gaining the upper hand.” He calls on the international community not to observe the conflict from afar, but to intervene. The refugee problem must be solved at the roots. “If the refugees cannot return to a peaceful Burundi, they will also turn up in Europe after a certain time.”
In the government-controlled media, bishops and priests are repeatedly defamed. Even during a discussion on Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, on the result of the elections in Burundi at the end of July, the Catholic Church in Burundi was fiercely attacked. The press spokesman for the President, Willy Nyamitwe, who joined the discussion via a video link from Burundi, accused the Church of having withdrawn from the election and thus losing its moral authority.
Father Maruhukiro reports to Aid to the Church in Need about a government-aligned journal which accuses the Archbishop of Bujumbura, Evariste Ngoyagoye, of not telling the truth. At the end of May, an attempt to assassinate him was prevented at the last minute. The article asserts that this attempted attack had been staged by the Church.
After Nkurunziza’s third candidature, the Bishops’ Conference issued two pastoral letters expressing a view on the crisis in the country. First they demanded that the election be postponed, and at the end of May they announced the withdrawal of the priests from the independent election commission.
Citing the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, the Bishops of Burundi recently again called on the citizens of Burundi to commit themselves to peace in the country. As the Catholic news agency Fides reports, the bishops expressed this on the fringe of their general assembly at the beginning of September. They stressed that a split had developed within the population between those who felt safe and others who feared for their lives and in many cases even saw themselves forced to flee abroad.
The bishops condemned criminal acts which have taken place in the capital Bujumbura, where several people are murdered every night and many no longer live in their homes because they are afraid. The bishops are also critical of the language being used in the political debate. They describe it as “threatening and defamatory, as though we were at war.”
Since the re-election of the country’s president Pierre Nkurunziza at the end of July, Burundi has been undergoing the worst crisis since the end of the civil war in 2003. Nkurunziza has been elected president for the third time. According to the Burundi constitution and the peace accords of Arusha the presidency is limited to two terms. His decision to stand for a third term provoked political protests and unrest in the capital of this small East African state. In the middle of May sections of the army failed in a putsch against the president. The government took violent action against its opponents. Burundi’s security forces tortured people in the opposition, according to human rights representatives. Demonstrators who had protested against the re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza had, among other things, been beaten with iron bars and burned with acid a report by Amnesty International claims. At the beginning of August General Adolph Nshimirimana, the right-hand man of President Pierre Nkurunziza, was murdered, and ten days ago the commander-in chief of the Burundi army, General Prime Niyongabo, narrowly escaped an attempt on his life according to media reports.
Burundi is located in the east of Africa between Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The state is smaller than Switzerland and is one of the world’s poorest nations. Over 90 per cent of the population are professing Christians, and 62 per cent are Catholics. Following the terrible civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi which raged for some ten years in Rwanda and Burundi from 1993 and which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, the concern that civil war may break out anew is great. More than 100,000 people fled to neighbouring countries in May, according to UN reports, mainly to Rwandaand Tanzania.
Aid to the Church in Needsupported the pastoral work in Burundi to the tune of more than 385,000 euros in 2014. At the present time Aid to the Churchin Need is contributing 30,000 euros to the “REMA 2” project of Caritas Burundi. The project is aimed at Burundi refugees who wish to return to Burundi from Tanzania and Rwanda. It also supports families who have taken in displaced persons in Burundi.
Antonia von Alten