In the tiny central African nation of Burundi, it is difficult to find good news. Diplomats estimate that 100 people are being killed daily in interethnic violence between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi tribes. Chaos and despair are evident in many areas, including in numerous churches in this mountainous country of 6 million people, of whom 90 percent are Christian.

Many pastors have fled to neighboring countries. During the past two years, 14 Roman Catholic priests have been murdered. Threats on the lives of clergy are frequent, especially against those preaching reconciliation.

Nonetheless, many pastors and lay church workers are continuing their struggle to encourage peace and hope.

TIME TO HEAL: Amid the ongoing ethnic and political violence, Protestant churches and organizations have been at the forefront of reconciliation efforts to avert full-scale genocide on the level that erupted in neighboring Rwanda last year (CT, May 16, 1994, p. 54).

International observers agree that the situation in Burundi remains critical. Ethnic tensions similar to those in Rwanda have long raged in Burundi. Hutus, who account for 85 percent of the population, had been ruled for four centuries by the minority Tutsi tribe.

In recent times, Tutsi military dictators held power starting with national independence from Belgium in 1962, but hopes for a new era ran high after the June 1, 1993, victory of Melchior Ndadaye, Burundi's first democratically elected Hutu president.

Then, in October 1993, Hutus saw elusive democracy being taken from them with the assassination of Ndadaye. Hutu militia started a bloodbath near the central town of Gitega. Tens of thousands of Tutsis were killed in a few days. Tutsis retaliated immediately in a campaign that continues around Bujumbura and northwestern regions.

Attacks on church leaders have come mainly from Tutsi extremists believed to be paid by wealthy Tutsi politicians and soldiers from the Tutsi-dominated army. Sources close to the government say the cabinet has virtually no control over the actions of the army.

Against such a backdrop, Protestants, who are estimated to represent between 10 percent and 15 percent of Burundi's population, have launched several initiatives for reconciliation.

The most aggressive programs have been sponsored by the International Bible Society (IBS). Simeone Havyarimana, IBS regional director for 22 French-speaking countries, says the "severe turmoil" in Burundi has made traditional IBS activities difficult to carry out.

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"All of this pushes you as an organization to create new ways of ministering to the country without escaping the problems which are really visible," he says.

From his office in Bujumbura, Havyarimana described how IBS began its reconciliation projects in November 1993, one month after Ndadaye's assassination, with hourly 30-second spots broadcast over state radio.

"We quoted Scriptures that speak directly to the problems of Burundi," says Havyarimana. "Some of them would be a warning to the people, others would cultivate peace in the country." Listeners, some of whom had been hiding in the bush, responded that they never knew the Bible was relevant to them, the IBS leader says.

IBS collected its radio Scripture messages and compiled them in a booklet, "Where Are the People of God?" To date, 650,000 booklets have been printed and distributed to government officials, soldiers, teachers, and church members of all denominations.

Following favorable government reaction, IBS was granted an hour-long program on state radio each Saturday to preach peace and reconciliation. The organization is now requesting another weekly half-hour slot.

In March 1994, IBS convened its first reconciliation seminar for 100 leaders of churches and parachurch organizations. Havyarimana says the meeting of top leaders was a big breakthrough as other groups have since organized their own seminars.

In mid-November, IBS launched a three-year training program, "Kundane," which is Kirundi for "Love One Another." In this program, IBS will use reconciliation manuals developed by the organization to train 2.5 million people in the next three years in aspects of mutual acceptance and national reconciliation. Both Protestant and Catholic churches are to participate.

THE CHURCH RESPONDS: Other Protestant churches and related organizations have been active in reconciliation and rehabilitation efforts as well. World Vision, a leading relief-and-development organization, has financed three reconciliation seminars since March in Bujumbura and two in Gitega.

According to World Vision officer Georgia McPeak, the organization is also building 500 homes in Muramvya, caring for unaccompanied children who may have lost parents in the crisis, and running a health program in the country's central provinces.

"There are pockets of peace," McPeak says. "We try to find them and support them when we can."

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The Pentecostal Church, the largest and fastest-growing Protestant community with some 500,000 members, has built 750 houses for displaced persons since February in the troubled regions of Kayanzi, Ngozi, Muyinga, and Cibitoke.

NOTHING BUT THE WORD: "Nothing else will solve the problems of Burundi except the Word of God," says pastor Nathanael Mpanganje, Pentecostal Church deputy legal representative. "So many people are in need of Bibles, but they have no way of getting them." The church's legal representative, pastor Meshak Kabwa, estimated that the country needs about 4 million Bibles.

Christian Aid's field officer, Eliane Duthoit-Privat, says her organization has been acting as a lead agency working through the National Council of Churches since August 1994 to provide emergency aid to northern provinces of Burundi, including to refugees from neighboring Rwanda, and to reinstall people in camps close to the hills around Bujumbura.

Celestin Musekura, director of healing and reconciliation ministries for Nairobi-based MAP International-Africa, has visited 11 camps in neighboring Zaire and Tanzania. Musekura, a Hutu from Rwanda, escaped last year's bloody conflict because he was finishing seminary in Kenya.

"In the camps, many people are repenting of killing and coming to the Lord," Musekura told CT. "The church must take the lead in helping people to reconcile with God and with each other."

Many Christian leaders asserted that Burundi's churches may be better positioned to deal with a national crisis than were churches in neighboring Rwanda. "It is a mistake to compare Burundi and Rwanda," says Bernard Ntahoturi, secretary general of the Episcopal Church.

Human-rights groups have accused some church leaders in Rwanda of escalating ethnic tensions by being too closely aligned with the government and by failing to speak out against spiraling injustices. Some Rwandan church leaders also have been accused of taking an active role in the genocide. "No church leader in Burundi, neither Protestant nor Catholic, was closely active in the political party, in political organizations, or institutions as they were in Rwanda," Ntahoturi says.


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