By Millicent Zighe
Burundi Catholic Bishops have accused the government of oppressing opposition party members in the country.
In a letter, the clergy raised concerns over efforts by Burundi government to “suffocate and assault certain political parties and to persecute their members.”
The country has witnessed criminal acts including murder targeting opposition members.
The country is set to have elections next year but opposition parties in the country feel the process will not be free and fair. As of 2019, reports indicate that over a hundred members of the National Congress for Freedom party (CNL) have been arrested and tortured. The true extent of the crisis is not known owing to the government’s efforts at curtailing freedom of press.
“In many provinces, there are plans in place to harass and bully some political parties and their members. On top of that, there is evidence of behavior that is jeopardizing the electoral process.” said Bishop Bonaventure Nahimana.
The church also accused the Imbonerakure-the youth military wing of the ruling party- of taking the place of security forces in the country. The group has carried out murders, rapes and arrests against people perceived to be against President Pierre Nkurunzinza’s regime.
In a response to the letter, Presidential Spokesperson Willy Nyamitwe accused the bishops of propagating hate speech.
“Some bishops should be defrocked because it is becoming a habit: on the eve of elections they spit their venomous hatred through incendiary messages,” Nyamitwe wrote on his twitter handle.
Evariste Ndayishimiye the secretary general of the ruling CNDD-FDD, said the bishops were sowing divisions in the country.
“It is shameful to spread hatred among the faithful,” he told a political gathering.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle (DW), Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) defended the priests for calling out the government. “We are absolutely not thinking that this is a controversial statement by the Catholic Church. On the contrary, this statement matches what independent analysts and what independent investigators have been concluding for the last several months” he said.
United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi recently expressed concerns over continued suppression of civil liberties. Additionally, the commission has said violations in the country constitute of international crimes.
“Ironically, the government is telling the Church to stay in its place, while at the same time it eliminates any meaningful attempt by any other actor to actually do any type of investigations into the multitude of human rights abuses that occur in the country,” said Mudge.
The clergy men and the ruling regime have been at loggerheads ever since they openly opposed Nkurunzinza’s bid for a third term in 2015. Churches in Burundi have promised to help ensure that that the upcoming elections be peaceful and democratic.