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Welby prays with Burundi president amid accusations of intimidation and violence

04 March 2016

Encounter: A photo of the meeting tweeted by Archbishop Welby on Friday

Encounter: A photo of the meeting tweeted by Archbishop Welby on Friday

THE Archbishop of Canterbury met the President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, to “pray and speak about issues of reconciliation”, on Friday.

Archbishop of Welby is 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”.

“We wanted to come now because there are difficulties and challenges in Burundi,” the Archbishop told BBC Africa on Thursday. “We wanted to show our support for the Anglican Church, to pray with the bishops, to pray with those in government, and in politics generally, and to renew the sense that Burundi is a country which many people love, and that they are never forgotten. They are never far from our hearts.”

Asked by the interviewer about the fact that the country was “witnessing some of the worst behaviours, not characteristic of Christians”, the Archbishop said: “We have to recognise, always, that people fail and do the wrong things, and attacks on people and violence happen all over the world. 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 Mr Nkurunziza, regarded by many as a violation of the 2000 Arusha peace and reconciliation agreement. 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).

The Archbishop’s visit follows that of the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, which resulted in an agreement by President Nkurunziza 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 to date.

The African Union is to send 100 human-rights monitors and 100 military monitors to the country. It originally pledged to send 5000 peacekeeping troops, but President Nkurunziza vowed to fight any who set foot in the country (News, 8 January). This week, three human-rights investigators arrived, led by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns.

In November, Mr Heyns was one of a team of experts who warned the Security Council of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, torture, attacks on independent media, the harassment and killing of human-rights defenders, and “unjustified limitations on freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression”. Church sources spoke of a climate of fear in the capital, Bujumbura, where the corpses of young people were being found on the streets and in rivers.

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 report was based in interviews with more than 63 people in Bujumbura between November 2015 and February 2016.

“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,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Government forces and the ruling party are treating suspected opponents with extreme cruelty and viciousness, which could further escalate the violence.”

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.”

The Church was “part of the solution”, he said.

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who makes regular visits to Burundi, called in January for the deployment of UN peacekeepers. He was “delighted” that the Archbishop and his wife were visiting.

“The situation there remains deeply concerning with continued violence on all sides,” he said on Friday. “My prayer is that the appointment of the former President of Tanzania, Benjamin Mpaka, to work alongside President Museveni in seeking to bring all parties together and reestablish peace will be successful. The whole situation is very fragile.”

The Primate of Burundi, the Most Revd Bernard Ntahoturi, and other Bishops “keep urging us to remember all the people of Burundi in prayer,” he said. “So let us keep praying knowing that God loves Burundi and yearns for its people to live at peace.”

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