“Christianity is a religion of witnesses.”
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Burundi promotes an inclusive dialogue for enduring peace.
Since April of 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza declared himself willing to run for a third term of office, Burundi has been experiencing a severe political crisis that has claimed the lives of hundreds and caused the exile of thousands of people. An interview with Joachim Ntahondereye, Bishop of Muyinga and President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Burundi.
By Amélie de La Hougue
Q) What is the cause of the political and social crisis that has shaken the country since April 2015?
A) Our country is experiencing a political crisis because of the divisive interpretation of Article 96 of the constitution. The president is of the opinion that this article does not keep him from running for a further term of office. Article 96 requires that the president be elected by universal direct suffrage; the president, however, argues that he was not elected to his first five-year term of office by universal suffrage, but by the two chambers of parliament. He thus believes that he is in the right. The opposition is of another opinion and argues that although Article 302 does require that “the first President of the Republic of the post-transition period be elected by the National Assembly and the elected Senate meeting in Congress”, nowhere does this article say that this mandate does not count. The opposition further argues that the term of office begins on the day that the president takes the oath of office and he therefore does not have the right to a third term. There is a certain degree of ambiguity in the constitution, which will hopefully be removed one day.
Q) What is the everyday situation in the country at the moment?
A) The situation has markedly improved over the last few months: despite there still being the one or other checkpoint, it is now possible to pass through the streets both day and night without any great difficulties. However, arbitrary arrests are still being made now and again and people do disappear without a trace. No one talks about this, but it is still our reality. The economy of the country has in turn been greatly affected by this crisis, the impoverishment of the population has increased substantially, prices have skyrocketed, the currency has depreciated...
Q) Many Burundians have fled the country. Where did they flee to and what conditions are they now living under?
A) It is difficult to obtain exact figures. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR reports 420,000 people, but the government rejects this figure. However, we do know that there are two refugee camps in Tanzania, one in Rwanda and one in the Congo. Despite two petitions that were made through the agency of the diocese of Kigoma, none of the bishops from Burundi have been able to obtain the necessary authorisation to visit the camps in Tanzania. I was able to visit the camp in Rwanda once and I saw that the refugees were still living under very precarious conditions there. However, I am happy to be able to report that the first refugees from the Tanzanian camps are returning to Burundi. When I left on this trip to Europe, about one thousand people had returned. Others, however, are not ready to come back at this time because even though the situation has improved over the last few months, a solution to the problem has yet to be found.
Q) Could you explain how the situation has improved?
A) Things have improved because clashes between the police and demonstrators are no longer breaking out, as had been the case since late April 2015, and the repressive rioting after the attempted putsch of 13 May of the same year has subsided. However, although the tensions that led to the uncertainty and outbreaks of violence have lessened since the followers of the radical opposition fled to other countries, the political problems they were caused by remain unresolved for the time being.
Q) In September, three international reports were published that denounce the abuse and violence of the government during the last two years. The government repudiates these reports. What is your response to this?
A) Each report would have to be investigated in detail and the crimes they describe would have to be examined case by case in order to be able to provide an exact answer. We do in fact hear of attacks and arrests from time to time, but the current situation is no longer the same as it was in the years 2015-2016. It has improved markedly.
Q) On 27th October Burundi announced that it would leave the International Criminal Court.
A) Yes, the government has undertaken all official steps in this direction. But the question one should ask is whether this will have any effect on the crisis in which we currently find ourselves.
Q) The Conference of Catholic Bishops of Burundi released an explicit statement on 10 September that called for an inclusive dialogue. What is meant by this?
A) I am convinced that for the good of our country it is necessary that all participants in the crisis sit down at one table to try to find a solution together. This has not been possible up until now despite the efforts of an arbitrator and a mediator from the East African Community. Attempts have already been made but a real dialogue has yet to take place because the government refuses to speak with anyone it accuses of having participated in the attempted putsch of 13 May 2015. However, the painful history of our country has shown that enduring peace is not possible without dialogue.
Q) Since the country is predominantly Christian and Catholic, would intervention by the pope be welcome?
A) Yes, of course, even though the two opposing sides would probably not understand his message in the same way. We are grateful to the pope for his past appeals calling for prayers for our country because they are a great source of courage for us. If he were to visit Burundi someday, this would be even better, but I do not know if the conditions that would allow for such an event are given at this time.
Q) Should Europe have a part to play in this?
A) Yes, but the EU has to do more for the well-being of the people and find another way to exert pressure than freezing financial aid. Ultimately, the only ones who suffer from this are the people. The powers that be in government will always find a way to avoid the burden of these sanctions and the little people are always the ones who pay in the end.
Q) Do you see a way out of the crisis in the next few months?
A) We hope and want it to happen with all our hearts, but we have nothing concrete that would allow us to claim that a way out of this crisis will soon be found.
Q) How is the church doing today?
A) Although we have between 80 to 90% Christians, I would like to point out that Christianity was never a religion of the masses and will never be one; it is a religion of witnesses. This is why we are trying to strengthen the development of small vibrant communities whose members are very conscious of the requirements of their faith and who bear witness to this in their daily lives. We are convinced that this type of pastoral care will save the faith in our country.
Q) Do you have vocations?
A) We have a large number of vocations; the number of applications to the seminary is growing from year to year. For this reason, it is more important than ever to meet the challenge of recognising the authenticity of these vocations. This increase in applications may be due to other factors than faith. In an economic crisis and its accompanying high unemployment rate, for example, there is reason to fear that some may apply to the seminary as a means of avoiding the risk of unemployment.
Q) Wherein lies the strength of the church in Burundi?
A) In its faith and hope. Despite the crisis, several very wonderful things are happening that we are experiencing; in our country, very beautiful witnesses of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and even of concern for the common good are being made. This is what makes it possible for us to keep going today and encourages us to work for a better future. All is not lost – far from it!
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