UN official praises churches' work for reconciliation in Burundi

By Ecumenical News International
February 6, 2008

A senior United Nations official in Burundi has pledged the support of the global body to the peace work of churches and other civic and religious bodies, paying a tribute to their efforts to stabilise the country after more than 10 years of war - writes Fredrick Nzwili.

"We will be happy to see how we can support you. Churches and other religious groups with their capacities for peace building, have a very important role to play," Youssef Mahmoud, the UN secretary general's special representative for Burundi told a team from the World Council of Churches, the All Africa Conference of Churches and the Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa recently.

Led by former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, the delegation of global and regional church groupings had been on a support visit to Burundi, a small central African country, at the invitation of churches there.

"For us the issue of insecurity is number one," said Mahmoud. "We have held several meetings with religious groups. This is something we want to work with you on. We do not want you to serve an injured flock."

The war pitting the majority Hutu against minority Tutsi tribes has caused havoc with the country's infrastructure, its economy and it has displaced many thousands of people. A peace process is, however, starting to bear fruits, with residents saying the guns are falling silent and all rebel factions, apart from one, having joined the government.

"There's a lot of hope," the Anglican archbishop of Burundi, Bernard Ntahoturi, told the delegation on 31 January in Bujumbura before it left Burundi. "But if you listen to vernacular radio stations, signs of warning keep coming. We fear the situation could take the shape of that of Rwanda."

An estimated 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda in 1994 when members of the country's majority Hutu tribe slaughtered minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus. Ordinary Burundians view the peace role of the churches as crucial, with some saying they have heard senior clerics frequently asking their followers to end hatred among themselves and to embrace peace.

"We often meet after services. I have heard my priest speak about unity and development to the people. I see them attempting to unite and reconcile the people," Omer Hakizimana, a student at the Anglican church's Light University told Ecumenical News International in Bujumbura. "We [Burundians] are convinced that churches can build peace in this country."

Delegation members said they were able to affirm the work of the Burundi churches and to encourage them. They also said they have been able to understand the Burundi problem, which rarely receives international attention.

"It was very important to come here. We have been able to understand the complexities of the Burundi problem. I am sure the Burundi Church does not feel alone anymore," said the Rev. Fred Nyabera, a Kenyan who heads the Fellowship of Christian Council and Churches in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa.

At least one person in the delegation made a specific recommendation after the visit.

"Of critical importance are reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction. The Church needs to urgently see how it can help young people. They are full of energy and that is dangerous. They could think of youth leadership institutes, which would equip both practical and social skills," said Bright Mawudor, the director of finance and administration at the Nairobi-based All Africa Conference of Churches.

Since independence from Belgium in 1961, Burundi has seen tension between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. The Tutsi have been portrayed as having had better access to education and making up a majority of the civil service, justice system and the security forces.

Burundi's first democratically elected president, a Hutu, was assassinated in October 1993 after only 100 days in office, triggering widespread violence between Hutus and Tutsis.

An internationally brokered power-sharing agreement between the Tutsi-dominated government and Hutu rebels in 2003 paved the way for a transition process and a new constitution, leading to the election of a Hutu-led government in 2005.

The rebel Palipehutu-Forces for National Liberation, the last remaining insurgent group in the Central African country, led by dissident Hutus, signed a peace agreement with the new government in 2006 but pulled out of talks the following year, halting implementation of the peace process. Burundi's church leaders said they hoped the Chissano-led delegation could help bring to the FNL to the negotiating table.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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