TOP STORY: BURUNDI – A SPECIAL REPORT: Divided and off-balance, church in Burundi an impotent peacem

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

BUJUMBURA, Burundi _ In a rural parish here, a Roman Catholic priest stands in the peaceful confines of the church garden and speaks in hushed tones about what he calls”the troubles”that haunt this tiny central African nation torn by civil war.”People come to the church every day seeking shelter either from the rebels or the soldiers. In this past couple of weeks alone about 5,000 new people have arrived,”the priest said of those fleeing the violence of Burundi’s ongoing civil war.”Now if I have to, I will give shelter and protection to them all. As many as I can bring into the confines of this parish, I will protect them as best I can.” But his words, meant to reassure, only inspire dread. They conjure up horrific images of another Catholic church at Nyarubuye, not far to the north in neighboring Rwanda. There, too, the church offered sanctuary to people fleeing genocidal violence. Instead, it became a killing ground.

Nyarubuye is deathly quiet these days. Rwanda’s government has chosen to allow the world to see in graphic detail what happened here in April 1994, when 4,000 people were slaughtered in a genocidal civil war fueled by longstanding animosities between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups.

In a cloister 100 yards from the Nyarubuye church, six squat classrooms ringing a grassy lawn are strewn with the dead. Two years after the massacre, full skeletons still clothed lay stretched out on the concrete floor, alongside shattered pieces of other ones. The skull of a child has been placed atop a pile of skeletons, a tangled mass of protruding femurs, ribs and arms.

Many other skulls are scattered about, most of which have been crushed on one side. Across the bone-strewn yard stand a stack of hoe heads, the weapon of the peasants of this parish who took part in the madness.

Up to one-quarter of Rwanda’s Catholic clergy _ and an untold number of Protestants _ perished in the carnage, much of which occurred in houses of worship, according to the London-based human rights group Africa Watch. And though stories are told of heroic efforts by individual religious leaders, Nyarubuye and the other churches have come to represent the failure of organized religion to avert the crisis that in three short months claimed from 800,000 to 1 million lives.

A similar tragedy could be unfolding here in Burundi. As in Rwanda, the church in Burundi _ Catholic and Protestant _ remains divided and off-balance, according to political analysts and religious leaders who acknowledge the church is failing to do its part to bring about peace.”The behavior of the church in Burundi is pathetic,”declared Karimi Kinoti, a consultant on religious and political affairs for the All-Africa Council of Churches, a confederation of denominations throughout the continent, based in Nairobi, Kenya.”Some leaders are openly supporting the regime while others are opposing it,”Kinoti said of the military coup that has ruled the country since mid-summer.”Many of the leaders are not able to break out of their own ethnic molds and be neutral. The church is very disappointing. Apart from the humanitarian action they are taking, they are not doing any good at all.” Roman Catholic leaders in Burundi acknowledge the church’s shortcomings as a peacemaker.”We must be obliged to find a way to stop the killings here,”said the Rev. Salvador Ntibandetfe, spokesman for Bujumbura Bishop Simon Ntamwame. Even though the bishop has tried to open up dialogues among the warring factions, Ntibandetfe says it is not enough. “The bishop, all of us here, want to see the Christian church more involved in a peace effort. We, of course, do this in our teachings but we need to add another degree _ the involvement in diplomacy,”he said.”This has been done in other places. We can overcome our obstacles in Burundi and do it here as well.” As in Rwanda, the current crisis in Burundi stems in part from longstanding conflict between the Tutsi peoples, a Nilotic ethnic group who make up about 15 percent of the population and the Hutus, a Bantu people who make up around 85 percent.

War broke out in 1993, when Burundi’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was assassinated by Tutsi paratroopers. Since then, some 150,000 people have been killed. In July, an army coup ousted the civilian president, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, and installed in his place Tutsi military strongman, Maj. Pierre Buyoya. In response, Hutu rebels stepped up their campaign, launching their largest offensive in the last three years. Scores have been killed, villages burned and some 30,000 people have been displaced in northern Burundi, according to the United Nations. The misery of civilians has been enhanced by an economic embargo imposed by Burundi’s neighboring countries.

Some religious leaders have called for peace, reason and an end to the embargo. But the strongest of those voices, Archbishop Joachim Nyakwubahwa Ruhuna, was killed Sept. 10 in a roadside ambush.

The death of Ruhuna, a Tutsi, has further hurt the ability of the church to bring about peace. Not only has one of its most capable leaders has been silenced, but his death has made others afraid to speak out.

The Catholic bishop of Bujumbura is a case in point. Bishop Simon Ntamwame has worked quietly behind the scenes, meeting with Buyoya, Burundi’s current president, as well as his predecessor and Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, a key peace broker in the region. But Ntamwame, a Hutu, is mistrusted by many Tutsis and extremist Hutus _ just as the Tutsi Archbishop Ruhuna was mistrusted by those outside his ethnic and political circle.

Ntamwame knows the real dangers of Burundi. He has received numerous death threats over the past few months. His brother, sister-in-law and children were murdered in their home village of Moinga several years ago by unknown assailants. His brother-in-law, Ernest Kabufsemeye, the former minister of energy, was assassinated in Bujumbura in 1993.

Even so, Ntamwame continues to look for peace, often alienating the army in the process. According to his spokesman, Ntamwame recently suggested an opening up of dialogue with the main rebel factions operating in the country.”That did not play well with the army or most of the Tutsi leadership, Ntibandetfe said.”We all came under a lot of criticism for that suggestion. But the bishop is committed to finding a way out of this crisis. He has also taken the precaution of getting some bodyguards.” (BEGIN FIRST OPTIONAL TRIM)

When it comes to politics, most everyone in Bujumbura is very careful about what they say _ especially true when the subject is the military or the Tutsi paramilitary gang, the Sans Echecs (“those who do not fail”). People speak in whispered tones, request meetings at secluded venues and nearly always demand anonymity.

One such person is a Catholic brother who claimed he has been the target of assassins on four different occasions. He unleashed a barrage of criticism on the army and the Sans Echecs. “This is a country that is totally ethnically divided,”the brother said.”The military will do everything in its power to get the word out that one Tutsi has been killed but will not say a word about the slaughter of hundreds of Hutus. The government blames all the problems here on the Hutus. Meanwhile, the army has no hesitation to embark on a military campaign against helpless civilians.” Indeed one of Bujumbura’s only Hutu neighborhoods, Kiminge, was attacked by the army and youth militia in 1993. The entire population of the area was forced to leave and many civilians were killed. No one has ever been allowed to return to the area.


The Burundian government maintains that the Sept. 10 attack on Ruhuna, which left a nun and five other people dead, was the work of Hutu rebels. Jean-Luc Ndizeye, Buyoya’s spokesman, is adamant both in his insistence that the army had nothing to do with the ambush and that it was the work of the rebels.”Everyone knows the archbishop was a man of peace,”said Ndizeye.”Why would the army have him killed? What purpose would it serve? We have witnesses that the rebels did it and we have no reason to doubt it.” It is easier to criticize the Burundian government and military from afar. A number of Burundian religious leaders living in Kenya blame the army outright for Ruhuna’s death.

United Methodist Bishop Jean Alfred Ndoricimpa said from his home in Nairobi that the Burundian army assassinated Ruhuna.

Ndoricimpa casts himself as a man who is talking to all sides in the conflict to try to achieve peace. Other religious leaders in the region, however, say Ndoricimpa is strongly aligned with the main Hutu rebel faction fighting the army, the Conseil National Pour La Defence De La Democratie (CNDD) and its leader, Leonard Nyangoma.

Few doubt that the Burundian army has committed atrocities. But that has not kept other church leaders from aligning themselves with the government and the national leadership.

Anglican Archbishop Pia Ntukazina is a close friend and confidante of military strongman Buyoya, according to Karimi Kinoti, of the All Africa Council of Churches in Nairobi and Emmanuel Kopwe, the East African coordinator of African Enterprise, a South Africa-based evangelical Christian group working on peace processes in the region.”The Anglican archbishop is very close to Buyoya and that is hurting the peace effort,”said Kopwe.”We thought early on that his relationship would be very key but we have since learned that it was a mistake to count on him.” But Ntukazina defends his friendship with Buyoya as vital to the peacemaking process.”I know Pierre Buyoya quite well,”he said in an interview.”But nowadays when I go to meet him, I never go alone, often times I take a Roman Catholic priest or the (Catholic) bishop with me. I do not want anyone thinking that Buyoya and I we are making plans together. I think, the Anglican church thinks, that we need a return to democratic rule in this country and that is what we are encourging.” Earlier this month, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey announced that he is putting together a team of international jurists and others to investigate the Anglican Church’s role in Rwandan genocide but gave no details on the panel.”There can be no healing until we look into the church’s role in that period,”he said.”Our church was caught up in the sinfulness of the world.” He called the situation of the Anglican Church in both Burundi and Rwanda”dire.” (BEGIN SECOND OPTIONAL TRIM)

There is a strong argument, many religious and political analysts say, that Buyoya, a relative moderate, is the best thing for Burundi at the moment. They hold out the hope that Buyoya will ultimately hand power over to civilian rule, as he did when he allowed elections to be held in 1993.

But Burundi’s parallels with Rwanda cannot be ignored. Catholic Church leadership ties with the former government in Rwanda crippled the church’s response to the genocide that unfolded, often within its own parishes.

Rwanda Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva was a member of the central committee of the Hutu government and a personal confessor to Agath Habyarimana, the wife of President Juvenal Habyarimana. On the eve of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 visit to Rwanda, the Vatican forced the archbishop to give up his government post, but he continued to have a close personal relationship with the president and top leaders.

Critics say Archbishop Nsengiyumva repeatedly failed to condemn Rwandan- instigated slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. When the Hutu interim government fled Kigali for the city of Gitarama ahead of advancing rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the archbishop and his senior bishops fled with them, a move that was widely seen as lending legitimacy to the government. Rwanda’s Anglican Archbishop Augustin Nshamihigo has come under similar criticism by human rights groups.


But the most serious problem currently facing the church in Burundi is the lack of action. In March, South African evangelical leader Michael Cassidy launched a peace initiative in Burundi. The Cassidy-led African Enterprise, an interdenominational evangelical ministry involved in reconciliation projects and other social issues, was instrumental in bringing about the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa. More recently, Cassidy is leading a peace effort in the troubled South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

African Enterprise is supported by donations from mainline and evangelical churches, corporations and individuals in the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Cassidy’s Burundian experiment brought together 120 church leaders and produced a task force that aimed to come up with a comprehensive peace plan. But the plan failed, and by admission of Cassidy’s own people, hopes for a church-based peace initiative in the future are dim.”Our biggest concern is that we will see Rwanda repeated again in Burundi,”said Emmanuel Kopwe of African Enterprise.”We tried to emphasize to the church leaders that they had to stand as one to avert disaster. At first they seemed to heed the advice but any initiative has since fallen apart. They are as divided now as they have ever been.” Still, efforts are going forward. Kinoti, of the All-Africa Council of Churches, believes a regional or international approach would be most effective. Both Kinoti’s group and the Geneva-based World Council of Churches are initiating such programs.

Some hold high hopes for the efforts of the Roman Catholic Sant’ Egidio community, a Rome-based anti-poverty and peacemaking group. Recently both Tanzanian former president Julius Nyerere and Leonard Nyangoma of the CNDD met with Sant’ Egidio leaders in Rome. Sant’ Egidio has proven its ability to broker peace deals in the past, successfully bringing Mozambican rebel Renamo forces and the government together in negotiations that eventually led to the end of a vicious 17-year civil war in that country.

Yet many religious leaders, while hoping that regional and international mediation can help solve the problem, are counting on church leadership inside Burundi to avoid a repeat of the carnage of places like Nyarubuye.”The church in Burundi has the trump cards to play and it is up to them to play them,”said Cassidy of African Enterprise.”If they pull proactively together they can make a real difference using their connections both with the leadership and at the grassroots level. But if they fail to pull together, who knows what could happen? It could be tragic.”


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