By Jonathan Luxmoore
OXFORD, England (CNS) — A Catholic aid worker said contingency plans are in place to evacuate staffers if a full-scale conflict erupts in Burundi, but insisted a church-backed dialogue could still avert civil war.
“We’ve established how we can support our staff, whether they remain here or are forced to leave,” said Darren Posey, country representative in Burundi for Catholic Relief Services.
“But the current troubles are political and need political solutions. There’s no reason why this country has to be divided along ethnic fault lines. The more we can persuade government and opposition to engage, the likelier it is that dialogue will succeed,” Posey told Catholic News Service.
United Nations Security Council mediators arrived in Bujumbura, the capital, and a national dialogue commission convened Jan. 19 to discuss the crisis, which was sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s acceptance of a third term last summer in apparent violation of the constitution.
Posey said Jan. 20 that deaths were occurring daily in “spikes of violence” in contested areas of Bujumbura, while the atmosphere was exacerbated by arbitrary arrests by government security forces.
Despite the violence, government officials had indicated a readiness to talk to opposition groups, and said peace could still be restored by internationally backed talks, he added.
“If the current dialogue process doesn’t move forward, a serious civil conflict is very possible. But if human rights observers can be deployed, the violence could still be halted and a meaningful resolution found,” Posey said.
The Catholic Church’s Bujumbura and Gitega archdioceses make up around two-thirds of the 8.5 million inhabitants of the landlocked central African nation, one of the world’s poorest countries.
Speaking Jan. 18, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said at least 439 people had been killed in violence since April when Nkurunziza announced his decision to seek a third term. He was re-elected in July with 70 percent of the vote, despite criticism by the U.S. and other foreign governments.
Al-Hussein told Agence France-Presse that more than 200,000 had fled Burundi to escape “attacks, arrests, kidnappings, material damage, injuries, deaths and sexual violence,” and said “all alarm signals” pointed to a “more and more ethnic dimension to the crisis.”
However, United Methodist Bishop Justin Nzoyisaba, who heads the National Commission for Inter-Burundian Dialogue, told AFP he hoped the 400 participants could make recommendations “for consolidating democracy,” despite a boycott by some opposition leaders.
Archbishop Evariste Ngoyagoye of Bujumbura told CNS Jan. 15 that the Catholic bishops’ conference had requested prayers for the commission’s success, and was unwilling to comment further because the situation was “very delicate.”
Posey suggested that church-government ties appeared to have improved after recent meetings, adding that Catholics had not been “specifically targeted” during the violence.
“We’ve been lucky at CRS, since no one has been arrested or lost close family members,” he said.
“Everything depends on whether you support or oppose the president’s third term. But local Caritas Internationalis and Justice and Peace Commission members are doing what they can to facilitate peace, although they know this will be a great challenge.”
In a December statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Caritas Internationalis said Burundi had been “plunged into frightening poverty” by the violence, and urged the international community to ensure humanitarian aid continued.
Meanwhile, the Burundian bishops’ conference said in a Dec. 19 pastoral message some people had “made a choice for war,” especially in Bujumbura, adding that conditions were worsened by the flight of refugees and the lack of teachers in schools, as well as by growing poverty caused by climate change.
“The only path the church has always encouraged is one of frank and sincere dialogue between all protagonists,” the bishops said.
The Vatican-based Fides news agency reported Jan. 5 that bodies of “people killed by death squads” were being “found every day” in Bujumbura, adding that a Catholic convent had been rocked by a powerful explosion on Jan. 4, amid fears of a resurgence of ethnic conflict that left 250,000 dead in a 1993 to 2006 civil war.