No Separation: Can the Church Calm the Crisis in Burundi?

The importance of churches across much of sub-Saharan Africa as sites of social gathering, public service provision, and ideational leadership cannot be underestimated.
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Pierre Nkurunziza, president of Burundi. (Photo: Eric Miller/World Economic Forum)

Pierre Nkurunziza, president of Burundi. (Photo: Eric Miller/World Economic Forum)

The unfolding crisis in Burundi is roiling, as growing unrest surrounding President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempt to run for a third consecutive term threatens to re-ignite a brutal civil war marked by ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis, which ended in 2005.

Violent protests against the president’s bid have been met with harsh police repression resulting in more than 30 deaths, a failed coup attempt, its associated military leaders on trial, the death of a key opposition leader, and a shutdown of independent media.

Forces loyal to the president—including the police and factions of the army—have carried out retaliatory attacks in a crackdown, and military leaders accused of being involved in the coup are now being tried. Burundian police reportedly entered hospitals and shot wounded fighters, adding to the mounting death toll. More than 100,000 citizens have fled to neighboring countries.

Elections are scheduled for June 26th, but these are likely to further exacerbate the situation. The risk is high that the country may plunge back into civil war and enflame ethnic conflict in the region.

For many, early words of the church leadership contributed to widespread mobilization and protests in the street against the president.

Who can play a role to moderate and resolve this extreme situation? Perhaps the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis himself made a call for peace in Burundi in his recent Sunday sermon in Rome at St. Peter’s Square. Last week the highly influential Catholic Church of Burundi said it was withdrawing support for June elections, and would ask priests who serve in electoral commissions across the country to step down. A statement from Burundi’s bishops said that this decision was taken in light of the evolving situation and the manner in which elections have been organized.

This is a crucial blow to the president’s bid and the electoral process itself given the highly significant social authority the Church wields across the country.

My research on religious engagement in politics shows that religious organizations across Sub-Saharan Africa have played every role imaginable in moments of extreme political uncertainty. National church leaders have been crucial brokers in moderating the transition to democracy; they have supported conflict, genocide, and authoritarian rule; and they have been stark opponents of autocrats and voices for good governance and peace.

In Burundi, the Church has historically played a critical role in opposition to the state. The Catholic leadership was quick to condemn ethnic massacres in the 1970s and has served as a voice for the people. But this came at a high cost to the Church leadership: The Archbishop was murdered in 1996 by the Hutu rebel group that went on to lead the current government. In 2006, the new Archbishop and Vatican envoy were also murdered—by the government or by an alternative rebel group.

In the last few months, the Catholic Church in Burundi—which retains the allegiance of more than 73 percent of the population—has openly opposed President Nkurunziza’s attempt to seek a third term. It was a move by the president that was seen by many as unconstitutional.

But the Church has also historically played a more nefarious role in the region.

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In neighboring Rwanda in 1994, the Catholic Church was a participant in the genocide—as desperate Tutsis sought refuge in churches across the country, they were let inside the gates only to be corralled for execution. As Timothy Longman meticulously demonstrates in Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda, “Church buildings became the primary killing grounds.”

In the immediate crisis unfolding in Burundi, the Church has played a critical role in mobilizing the protests against the president. Indeed, Burundi’s Archbishop Simon Ntamwana delivered a sermon in late March that called for Nkurunziza to cease his quest to stand for re-election in the contests scheduled for June.

“We cannot choose other paths than those of love and of mutual respect for the principles that govern our country,” Ntamwana said. Leaders of the Catholic Church also wrote a newspaper commentary criticizing the president’s attempt to stand again, and a pastoral letter was read in all of the country’s churches.

People who are frustrated with the corruption, inefficiency, and injustice of the state turn to the churches for support.

For many, these early words of the church leadership contributed to widespread mobilization and protests in the street against the president. The importance of churches across much of sub-Saharan Africa as sites of social gathering, public service provision, and ideational leadership cannot be underestimated, and the words of religious authorities can carry great weight.

Recently, just days before the failed coup, the Catholic Church issued an ultimatum to the president to postpone the election and allow independent radio and television stations to resume broadcasting or it would ask church members on the Electoral Commission to leave.

In reality, the church was merely giving voice to what the majority of Burundians already believed: the necessity of maintaining presidential term limits.

Why has the Catholic Church taken such different positions across the two countries?

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In Rwanda, historical linkages between the church and the state fostered ethnic discrimination among church officials, and leadership struggles across Christian churches encouraged some leaders to accept the genocide as a route to limiting challenges to their own power within the religious landscape.

In Burundi, the churches made an early alliance following independence with the marginalized Hutu masses against the Tutsi-dominated government. The Church sought out the subservient population to increase its following, and provided access to education and employment, furthering support among the population. Subsequent governments felt Tutsi hegemony was threatened by the Church’s work, and placed severe restrictions on its leadership, membership, and associational capacity. This attack on the churches offended domestic and international supporters alike and significantly contributed to the deposition of President Bagaza in 1987.

While his predecessor tried to repair the damage, the assassination of the Tutsi Archbishop only furthered solidified the Church’s commitment to human rights and willingness to condemn political authorities.

National church leaders have been crucial brokers in moderating the transition to democracy; they have supported conflict, genocide, and authoritarian rule.

In return, people who are frustrated with the corruption, inefficiency, and injustice of the state turn to the churches for support. Certainly, some of the church national leaders remain closely allied to the ruling regime, and the churches have not adopted a formal policy of opposing the incumbent party. Yet the efforts of the local church leaders to stand up for the needs of their congregations, to defend them from violence, and to provide both material and spiritual support is often seen by political leaders as a threat.

Ultimately, because the churches have this ability to mobilize and empower the masses, they have served in resistance to the president’s attempted third term.

Certainly, there is nothing intrinsic about religious theologies, organization, or practices that led to these divergent—and consequential—roles vis-à-vis society and the state. Instead, the historical linkages to power and the nature of religious competition for followers at the local level drive churches to take up certain strategies vis-à-vis the government and vis-à-vis the needs of their flock.

In Latin America, for example, the Catholic decision to incorporate indigenous rights into its agenda was not due to an ideological position of doctrine at the outset. Instead, it was a response to the threat of losing members to Evangelical conversions.

Whether the church can now help Burundi avoid an increasingly violent battle over succession—and the return to ethnic conflict—is a crucial question. Its history of opposition suggests it could have a highly significant role to play in brokering the path ahead.

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