Burundi is a small republic of some 11,000,000 people in central Africa, situated in the African Great Lakes region, between the Congo to the west, Rwanda to the north, and Tanzania to the east. It is 90% Christian, consisting of about 65% Catholic, 25% Protestant, 5% native religions (e.g., animism), and about 3% Muslim. The country is very poor with average income of less than $700 per year, or less than $2 per day. It is also poorly governed, with a history of civil war, genocides, civil rights abuses, high rates of HIV/AIDS, and miscellaneous political unrest.
For the past six months, the government has been arresting Adventist church officials in Burundi. On May 13th, Elder Wilson published an appeal to all Adventists to pray for the situation in Burundi. His appeal is reproduced here as it appeared at Adventist News Network:
I am earnestly appealing to Seventh-day Adventist church members, and others worldwide, to begin a strong, worldwide prayer initiative for our members and church organization in the central African country of Burundi, who are experiencing systematic religious liberty abuse by the government. For more than six months, the Burundi government has increasingly harassed and abused the Seventh-day Adventist Church by imprisoning, beating, and intimidating Seventh-day Adventist church leaders and members.
The government has prevented the ability of the Adventist Church to function through our duly-elected leadership of the Burundi Union Mission, who were appropriately, and legally, appointed by the East-Central Africa Division of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist. It is apparent the wonderful Total Member Involvement activities of God’s people to help others through Christ’s method of dealing with people physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually, have not been valued by the government of Burundi.
During this time, I have personally appealed to the president of Burundi with no response from his office. We now call on him and his government ministries to adhere to international law, United Nations protocols, and Organization of African Union precepts, to honor religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all citizens of Burundi and the legitimate Seventh-day Adventist administrative team in the country.
On Friday, May 10, the duly appointed president of the Burundi Union Mission of Seventh-day Adventists, Pastor Lamec Barishinga, was arrested along with Pastor Lambert, a local field president. This is completely illegal, unethical, and against all logical and international protections of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
I call on all Seventh-day Adventists to pray for our church members in Burundi, for religious liberty in that country, and for the release of all imprisoned Seventh-day Adventists. Please pray until we see God’s mighty hand changing this dire situation in Burundi. I appeal to the governments of all nations around the world, and especially in Africa, to intercede with the Burundi government on behalf of religious liberty for the people of Burundi and specifically for Seventh-day Adventists who are being abused by that country’s government.
This is “Day Number 4” in this highly unjust and illegal interference by the Burundi government into the ecclesiastical activities of the Seventh-day Adventist Church by arresting our duly-appointed Burundi Union president. Please pray intently and unceasingly around the globe for religious freedom for God-fearing church members in Burundi.
We will provide periodic updates to this abuse of religious liberty in Burundi and note the number of days of religious injustice until it is corrected. Please pray and advocate for abused church members in Burundi as the God of all the universe intervenes according to His almighty power.
TO OUR FAITHFUL SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST MEMBERS IN BURUNDI: You are not forgotten. Your world church family, with millions of members globally, is praying for you. Stay faithful to God’s biblical truths and to the legitimate Seventh-day Adventist Church structure, appointed by the East-Central Africa Division, as you claim the following Bible promises:
“Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9.
“You must not fear them, for the Lord your God Himself fights for you.” Deuteronomy 3:22.
“And the Lord, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.” Deuteronomy 31:8. “Do not be afraid of their faces, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Jeremiah 1:8.
Take courage from Revelation 2:10, “….Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Please know that I have personally prayed for all of you as church members and for Pastor Lamec Barishinga, our legitimate president of the Burundi Union Mission, Pastor Lambert, and the 21 others who have been imprisoned. Be of good courage. God will see you through. I have also prayed for the government of Burundi, that it will provide religious liberty to its citizens and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi.
Ted N C Wilson, president
Seventh-day Adventist Church
Silver Spring, Maryland
United States of America
Based upon reading the comments after the article, this does not appear to be a general persecution of the SDA Church in Burundi. Rather, it appears to be an SDA leadership dispute, or a disputed church election, in which the losing side has somehow managed to enlist the civil government to harass its adversaries. Things like this happen in Africa, where the principle of separation of church and state is not fully appreciated or implemented.
UPDATE May 16: Ganoune Diop, of the SDA Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty has clarified the situation in Burundi. The government of Burundi is using its police power to maintain in office an SDA Church official whom the church removed from office. This explanation is posted at the PARL website:
Commentary: What Seventh-day Adventists face in Burundi
Ganoune Diop, Ph.D.
GC Public Affairs Director and Religious Liberty
The Seventh-day Adventist Church does not involve itself in the establishment or downfall of governments. Its official adherence to the principle of separation of religion and state precludes any entanglement in the affairs of any government or any state. Its 21 million members worldwide have the freedom to choose their political representatives according to their individual consciences.
Religious freedom, the issue which is at the heart of the current crisis in Burundi, is not only the right to worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience, and the right of religious organizations to conduct their affairs without government interference, but is, at a deeper level, freedom from being harmed, hurt, intimidated, humiliated, persecuted, imprisoned, tortured or murdered. Violence against citizens to make them comply with the preferences of those who govern a country is utterly unethical and inhumane. Peaceful persuasion should always be preferred over coercion.
The internationally-affirmed principle of no coercion in matters of belief also applies to national governments, which should not intrude in the affairs of the Church.
This principle is violated whenever a government tries to dictate to the Church how to run its internal affairs. No government should attempt to influence the choice of Seventh-day Adventist leaders. This is simply unacceptable. If the Church allows this kind of intrusion, its own raison d’être would be jeopardized as a space where the foundational status of freedom of conscience undergirds all other freedoms.
A government can appropriately object to the appointment of any citizen if it proves beyond reasonable doubt that such leader has broken the law of the land. But without the basic core principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” foundational to any legitimate judicial system, the law sinks into arbitrariness. Without this basic protection, no one is immune from arbitrary accusations, slander, arrests and imprisonment. In other words, no one should be accused without evidence. If the government has evidence against the duly-elected new leader, then it is its moral duty to press charges rather than allowing the perpetration of possible corruption. Accusations and allegations without due judicial process are an abuse of prerogatives.
Moreover, if the government were to demonstrate that the duly-elected leader is not fit for office in Burundi, for cause, it can use the venues of justice present in its own constitution. Then, the Church would have to act on compelling proofs that the leader it had chosen is not fit to lead the church in Burundi. Until that is proven, however, there is no basis to dismiss a duly-elected leader.
In the case of Burundi, the core violation of religious liberty is the refusal of the government to accept the decision of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to elect its leaders in freedom and without interference.
The delegation sent by the president of the world Seventh-day Adventist Church at the invitation of the Minister of Interior to resolve the crisis in the succession of leadership in Burundi went in all good faith to listen to the proposal of the minister. We reported back the suggestion of the minister. The broad and diverse representation of leaders who received the report carefully considered options that would maintain the integrity of the decision of the executive committee of the Church in the East-Central Africa Division (region) while being mindful of the concerns of the government of Burundi to secure civil cohesion.
The mandate of the delegation was not that of a fact-finding mission, nor was it to side with one camp and get entangled in differences of interpretations and opinions. We were sent to listen to the Minister of Interior, and we accurately reported back his proposal. We took the opportunity to spiritually encourage church members. But we were certainly not an investigation squad. The expectation of some that we should be listening to all parties in this crisis was beyond our purview or responsibility. We were not mandated either to judge East Central Africa Division and evaluate the decision of a committee of representatives of 11 nations in East-Central Africa. In its working policy, the Adventist Church has mechanisms to express one’s grievances regardless of a decision of a committee. As a delegation, our focus was to find a way with the government to end the stand-off regarding who the legal representative is or should be.
It would have been simple to accept the church’s proposal to allow the legal representative of the church be the treasurer of the Union, while allowing the duly elected union president to attend to spiritual and administrative affairs of the church entrusted to his care. But the government’s representative we visited in all good faith insisted on his own plan. The situation escalated with the government support of a person removed from his function as representative of the church.
The intransigence of the government seen in dismissing the Church’s proposal to allow the Union treasurer to be the legal representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi has been surprising. It will certainly not aid in maintaining the peaceful cohesion of a country to which the Adventist Church is committed for sustainable development. There are currently 23 Adventist schools and five clinics/dispensaries in Burundi. The remarkable work of Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA) is a vital asset to the country. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has plans to do much more for the country of Burundi.
The Burundi government’s decision to maintain in leadership a person whom the church removed from his functions was not a wise choice. In addition, the former union president has been deprived of his pastoral credentials by the church he once served. The coercive nature of this imposition of a leader the Church has removed from his post is not in accordance with the respect due to ecclesiastical institutions. Empowering and enabling a demoted former church employee is unwarranted and unhelpful. He can no longer in any way represent the Seventh-day Adventist church. His refusal to leave office appears a sabotage of the functioning of the Adventist Church in a country where Adventists occupy positions of responsibility to loyally and wholeheartedly serve their country. His illegal occupation of the Church offices with the help of the police prevents the duly elected officials from needed access to church property.
Even more concerning, the Burundi government arrested Seventh-day Adventist church leaders, and it is our hope that—contrary to some reports—they have not been subjected to any form of violence. This unwarranted action exacerbates the fragile fabric of a society in need of peace after a difficult past of civil unrest and tribal challenges. Seventh-day Adventists are careful to abide by the law of the land while being loyal to the beliefs, principles, working policies and mode of operations of their church.
As committed Christians, there is no animosity in our hearts against any member of the government. We will continue to respect their dignity and appeal to the best of their humanity.
This unfortunate situation is wholly unnecessary and could have been easily avoided. Good will from the country’s leaders in de-escalating the tension could be shown by letting the church run its own affairs according to its own internal working policies.
Government interference in church affairs never leads to peace in the society. Such actions create traumas, incite grievances and promote dissatisfaction. They are costly to a country that needs peace and prosperity.
Even now, there is still time to reverse this self-inflicted wound. Seventh-day Adventist members, numbering 186,000 in Burundi, and the church to which they belong, are blessings to the country of Burundi. The Church and its members are committed to the well-being of the people of the country.
This commitment to respecting, showing solidarity and serving the people of Burundi is anchored in a conviction which Nelson Mandela memorably expressed: “To deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” We hope to partner with the leadership of the country to affirm every one’s humanity and rights, including the legitimate leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Despite differences in approach and opinions, we owe and continue to show respect and consideration to all government officials. We believe in the solidarity of the whole human family.
We pray that the leadership of this country will see wisdom in staying within the boundaries of their functions and refrain from interfering in the affairs of the Church.
May wisdom and peace prevail in Burundi, a country wrestling to elevate its citizens to peace and life in dignity.
Reports from Burundi state that all Adventists have now been released from prison. Elder Wilson states:
We have received very encouraging news and are happy to indicate that all Seventh-day Adventist detainees in Burundi have been released. Prayers have been answered. We thank the Government of Burundi for its role and specifically one of its Members of Parliament, Honorable Justin Niyobuhungiro, for facilitating the releases. Thank you to Seventh-day Adventist church members worldwide and others who have been praying earnestly for the detainees, for the church in Burundi, and for the Burundi government leaders. We look forward to continued improvement in this sensitive situation dealing with the church and its governance. We encourage you to keep praying that God will provide for a helpful resolution to the challenges being faced and for peace and prosperity in Burundi.