Burundi's Catholic Church steps in as leader hangs tough

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Kiryama (Burundi) (AFP) - The Sunday service at the hill-top Kiryama church was packed as Catholic Archbishop Simon Ntamwana delivered a sermon, and a political bombshell, for the small central African nation of Burundi.

Addressing a congregation of hundreds in his central Burundi parish, Ntamwana read from the Old Testament story of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah who rebelled against God and brought destruction on his kingdom.

"We cannot choose other paths than those of love and of mutual respect for the principles that govern our country," he said.

To his congregation the message was clear: President Pierre Nkurunziza must not stand for re-election in June.

Days before, leaders of the influential Catholic Church penned a newspaper commentary criticising the president's desire for what opponents say would be an unconstitutional third five-year term.

In the article, Burundi's Catholic leaders warned that the country must not "fall back into divisions, clashes or war" and recalled that a peace deal that ended the civil war in 2006 and put Nkurunziza in office only allowed for two terms.

Officials from Burundi's ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, admit the statement has caused "immense damage" to the presidential camp, already hit by accusations of running an election campaign characterised by censorship and repression.

"Catholics represent between 75 and 80 percent of the population, so it is a social force, an influential force," said Julien Nimubona, a political science professor at Burundi University in the capital Bujumbura.

Nimubona said religion can be brought to bear on politics, pointing out that Nkurunziza, a born-again Christian, had once claimed a "gift from God" to govern.

Innocent Muhozi, a prominent figure in Burundian civil society, said because the Catholic Church "rarely emerges from its position of keeping a distance from politics", people listen when it does.

"In all major crises we've had, the Catholic Church has played a rather positive role," said Muhozi. "Every time the state was going crazy, the church has tried to calm it down."

- A history of conflict -

In 1972, the Church was quick to condemn the ethnic massacres and repression of the Hutu elite. Although criticised by some for not being outspoken enough, private Church correspondence show priests were wary of aggravating the situation.

The Church's opposition continued in the 1980s, against coup leader Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, who was forced out in 1987.

During the 1993-2006 civil war, the Church denounced a coup against the first elected president of the country, Melchior Ndadaye, and the subsequent wave of killings.

Occasional forays into the political arena have cost the Church dearly.

Archbishop Joachim Ruhuna was murdered in 1996 by the CNDD-FDD, the Hutu rebel group that went on to become the current government, after he condemned the killing of hundreds of ethnic Tutsi refugees. Seven years later Irish Archbishop and Vatican envoy Michael Aidan Courtney was murdered by different Hutu rebels.

Attacks against the Church have continued into peacetime, most recently in September when three Catholic nuns from Italy, aged between 75 and 83, were murdered at a convent north of Bujumbura. Mystery still surround the unsolved case, with some accusing Burundi's intelligence services of involvement.

With rare exceptions, "the Catholic Church has always been in conflict with the government," said Nimubona.

With elections due in June and the Church having so clearly stated its opposition to Nkurunziza's third term bid, the Church's level of influence will soon become clear.

"We'll see," said Nimubona, who said religion is just one factor in the election, alongside social divisions including ethnic sectarianism, and day-to-day issues such as unemployment and food prices.

But even in the ruling party stronghold where Kiryama church is located, the message was getting through.

"The Church, I support it," said Longin Ciza, a farmer. He said he was happy with the new roads and free schools that Nkurunziza has delivered since 2005, but said it was nevertheless time for him to go.

"When you work on something for 10 years, if you continue, you might ruin everything," he said.

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