THE Archbishop of Canterbury met the President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, to “pray and speak about issues of reconciliation”, last Friday.
Archbishop Welby was visiting the country in the wake of political turmoil over President Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term — regarded by many in Burundi and the international community as unconstitutional — and a brutal crackdown that prompted warnings of genocide from church sources (News, 18/25 December).
Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch warned that government forces were “killing, abducting, torturing, and arbitrarily arresting scores of people at an alarming rate”.
Archbishop Welby told the BBC that Mr Nkurunziza “certainly acknowledged that this was a time when there was a need for reconciliation. I understood that as obviously meaning with the opposition. There’s a real passion for the country to go forward, and a sense of darkness. There’s a good level of hope, but there is also this real concern about where they might go.”
He also met members of the opposition. Charles Nditije, one leader, told the BBC of “massive violations of human rights going on here”, including executions by the police and the army on the orders of the President.
“We have to recognise, always, that people fail and do the wrong things, and attacks on people and violence happen all over the world,” the Archbishop told the BBC. “They are wrong, whoever does them, and in whatever circumstances. It is the call of the Church to stand clearly for reconciliation.”
At least 440 people have been killed since protests began in April against the nomination of President Nkurunziza. More than 250,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring countries, escaping what the UN has described as “targeted campaigns of intimidation and terror” (News, 24 July). Archbishop Welby met some of them during a visit to the Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda, on Tuesday.
The Archbishop’s visit follows that of the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, which resulted in President Nkurunziza’s agreeing to withdraw some media bans, cancel arrest warrants, and release some detainees. He also agreed to engage in “inclusive dialogue”, although he has refused to include those accused of involvement in an alleged coup attempt (News, 15 May). Talks in Uganda, led by President Yoweri Museveni, have faltered.
During his three-day visit, the Archbishop visited parishes in some of the areas most affected by the troubles, including Cibitoke, from which many people have fled and others have been killed or arrested. He also preached at an ecumenical service in Holy Trinity Cathedral, Bujumbura.
The Bishop of Gitega, the Rt Revd John Nduwayo, said on Tuesday that the visit had come “at the right time to meet people [who had been] in suffering, sorrow, and despair for a year”. Parishioners were “in great need of being comforted and consoled”, and “we are praying that the dialogue begins soon, so as to reach the peace agreement without delay.”
Last month’s Human Rights Watch report said that abuses were now taking place “under the radar, with security forces secretly taking people away and refusing to account for them”.
“The Burundian police, military, intelligence services, and members of the ruling party’s youth league are using increasingly brutal methods to punish and terrorise perceived opponents,” the Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele, said. He called on both the government and the opposition to “rein in their members and supporters to break the cycle of violence”.
Archbishop Welby told the BBC that the Church had to “call people together to see each other as human beings — not to demonise their enemies, but to love their enemies as Jesus did, and to find ways of building a common future”.