24 May 2019   |  

It has been labeled a “crisis” and last week Elder Ted Wilson, the president of the denomination’s General Conference (GC), appealed to Adventists around the world to pray for the church in the central African nation of Burundi. “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 those improperly imprisoned Adventists,” he was quoted in the online Adventist Review on May 14.

A later commentary by Dr. Ganoune Diop, director of public affairs and religious liberty for the GC, stated that the issue was “the right of religious organizations to conduct their affairs without government interference,” and specifically the choice of denominational leaders. “A government can appropriately object to the appointment of any citizen” as a denominational leader, Diop wrote, “if it proves beyond reasonable doubt that such leader has broken the law. But without the basic core principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ … the law sinks into arbitrariness.”

Specifically, Diop stated that the Burundi Union Mission president had been removed from office by the East Central Africa Division (ECD) committee, but the Burundi government decided to maintain him in office despite the fact that he “has been deprived of his pastoral credentials by the church.”

Diop also stated a recent visit he made to Burundi was “certainly not an investigation” and “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 from 11 nations.”

But Adventist Today’s investigation shows that this is not just religious persecution or a breakdown of religious liberty, as Elder Wilson first claimed. There are many complications here, including evidence of theft, open violence among church members, political infighting, and ethnic tensions.

Steps to Crisis

A 15 May article in the Business Standard newspaper in Nairobi, Kenya, described the conflict in detail. Since that time Adventist Today has received even more information from a number of sources among the 186,000 church members in Burundi. We have also obtained copies of a significant number of documents related to this story.

Pastor Joseph Ndikubwayo was fired as union president in November. It is important to keep in mind that a union mission, unlike a union conference, is governed by the Division committee. It does not have a constituency from its territory as a union conference does. In other words, it is not self-governing. And in this case, it means the decision was made outside of Burundi in a neighboring country by a group largely made up of citizens from other nations.

Ndikubwayo was fired due to accusations of embezzling church funds and accepting a role with the government, according to the Business Standard article. Here, evidence differs. Adventist Today has a copy of the General Conference Auditing Service (GCAS) report of an audit conducted in October 2018. Ndikubwayo is not mentioned in the report, though union executive secretary, Pastor Paul Irakoze, was accused. Also, the former union treasurer confirmed verbally and in writing that he had given money to Irakoze.

Church members in Burundi expected the Division to take action against Irakoze. However, it appears that internal politics among the Division officers may have resulted in a different outcome.

Church members filed a case in the Anti-corruption Court in Burundi. Irakoze and the former union treasurer were arrested. Then, an office of the Division wrote to the Court admitting that money was embezzled but stating they had not asked anyone to file a case.

The fact that Ndikubwayo had a role with the government of Burundi does not appear to have anything to do with this case. He was asked by the Head of State to serve as a member of the National Security Council in 2015 and he accepted. The Division officers were aware of this and church members in Burundi cannot understand why this could be a reason to remove him from office in 2018, three years later. The Adventist Church in Burundi is among the top five Christian denominations in the country and it is common practice for the government to request Adventist leaders to serve on various committees. For example, Pastor Uzziel Habingabwa, who was union president from 1994 to 2005 served as a member of the Elders’ Council of Burundi. These positions are never full-time positions. They are advisory positions, voluntary positions with no salaries or financial benefits.

Pastor Lamec Barishinga was appointed to be union president in Burundi at the 6 November meeting of the Division committee in Nairobi. Barishinga was the executive secretary of the local field in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. His field president was Pastor Lambert Ntiguma, whom sources have told Adventist Today was behind the removal of Ndikubwayo. Church members told us that they have heard that days prior to the 6 November meeting, Ntiguma told Ndikubwayo in front of other field officers, that he would never finish his term in office.

Ganoune Diop Intervention

The Adventist Church has been present in Burundi since 1925. A church member told Adventist Today, “We have never had a crisis of this magnitude, except the persecution of 1984-1987 when the church was outlawed.” Many church members in Burundi have rejected the Division’s decision because it appeared to be largely influenced by internal politics among the Division officers.

Dr. Diop traveled to Burundi in March and met with government officials because the government did not recognize the appointment of Barishinga as legal. Civil law in Burundi prohibits the removal of the chief executive of a non-profit organization before the end of the term of office specified in the organization’s bylaws. Diop met twice with the Interior Minister and the chair of the body which is responsible for mediation of internal conflicts in denominations. Sources have told Adventist Today that the officials showed him all the details related to this case, including the absence of an offense that could justify the removal of Ndikubwayo as union president before the end of his term.

The officials also presented to Diop how the conflict in the church was a threat to public order because police had to intervene on Sabbaths when church members got into fights. Gihosha SDA Church was closed twice because of fighting on Sabbath. At Kamenge SDA Church the Lord’s Supper was disrupted. Sources told Adventist Today that Diop and the officials agreed that the best solution would be to remove both Ndikubwayo and Barishinga and appoint a new person who could unite the church.

The understanding of church members in Burundi is that Diop promised to present his report to the GC President for action. Adventist Today has been told that Diop announced this to church members on Sabbath during a sermon. However, after returning to the GC office in the U.S., Diop wrote to the Minister informing him that they had decided to keep Barishinga as union president, but appoint Daniel Bavugubusa, the union treasurer, as the legal representative of the denomination to the government.

Many church members have rejected this proposal as a violation of the union mission bylaws. Before the Minister could reply, Diop sent another letter on 26 March threatening the government of Burundi that if it did not accept the decision of the GC, they would launch a campaign against the government in international forums such as the United Nations, European Union, African Union, etc., and in social media.

The Church Meets with Government Leaders

On 15 April, Barishinga and his team met with the government Ombudsman. They accused the Interior Minister of imposing a leader on the Adventist Church. They also met with journalists from local and international media, including the Voice of America and British Broadcasting Company (BBC). This action was interpreted by the government officials as implementation of Diop’s plan. The ombudsman gave them an appointment for another hearing on 18 April.

A letter dated 17 April from the Minister of Interior of Burundi, Pascal Barandagiye, addressed to Pastor Ted Wilson, the GC president, states that Ndikubwayo is to continue to be the leader of the Burundi Union Mission until church leaders can elect a new leader that everyone consents to. It says Barishinga is “a disputed person” as leader of the church and that insisting that he continue as union president is “a contradiction to the discussions we had with your delegation” (the one led by Diop).

The Interior Minister also invited all the Adventist leaders in Burundi to meet with him at Hotel Source du Nil in Bujumbura on 18 April in an apparent attempt to mediate a settlement in the dispute. Ndikubwayo and his supporters went, but Barishinga and his team went to the Ombudsman’s office. The Ombudsman told them to go and meet with the Interior Minister, but they refused.

In this meeting, the Interior Minister repeated that Diop and his delegation had decided to go against everything they had agreed on when he met with them. He instructed administrative authorities and security forces to ensure the law is respected and to stop all fighting in churches. He stated that those who disagree with his decision can take legal action through the Administrative Courts which have the power to overturn his decision; that this is the peaceful way to disagree with his decision. He emphasized that the government wants the Church to be united and it is for that reason that he was calling for the Church to conduct elections and put in place a leader everyone can agree on.

Arrests and Congregational Tensions

The Business Standard article reported that on 10 May, Barishinga and Ntiguma were arrested. These arrests were the result of violence that occurred on Sabbath, 4 May at Jabe SDA Church in Bujumbura, sources have told Adventist Today. A group organized four busloads of people to go to Jabe Church and disrupt the service because the pastor was supporting Ndikubwayo as union president. As the pastor was about to address the congregation, he was attacked, beaten and his nose was bleeding. Church members called the police, who came immediately.

Church members have told Adventist Today that the police are now alert on Sabbaths because of how often they need to intervene in open conflicts in Adventist congregations. The Inspector General of Police has instructed local commanders to ensure Adventist properties are secure and protected by using passive and dissuasive security in order to enable members to worship freely.

A number of other Adventists have been arrested. Recently all of them, including Barishinga and Ntiguma, have been released, according to Adventist News Network. It appears that the purpose of the arrests is simply to keep the peace and prevent violence, not to force a government decision about who should be the leader of the denomination in the country.

Japhet Legentil Ndayishimiye posted a comment on the Adventist Review online in response to the article about Ted Wilson’s appeal for worldwide prayer in which Ndayishimiye wrote, “The General Conference … failed to listen to both sides. …. The problem is that one of staff members of East Central Africa Division in Kenya is also involved in the missing 200 million Burundi francs, [and] that is why the delegation from that Division could not do [its] job as mediators.” He also wrote, “The Conflict is on a high risk of ethnic problems …” Ndayishimiye is a Burundian Adventist who lives in Norway. He follows closely what is taking place in Burundi because he is president of the Burundian Diaspora network.

Clearly a real solution has yet to be put in place among Adventists in Burundi. Is the issue really about religious rights or is it about politics within the organization? Will leaders emerge in the Division and the GC who will listen to the church members in the country and move beyond guarding their own organizational turf? To what extent are these matters of ethnic tension? (Burundi has the same tribal divisions—Hutu and Tutsi—as neighboring Rwanda.)

These questions should provide a basis for prayer for the church in this region.

The problem is far from solved, and new information keeps coming to light. But what appears to be clear is that this is more than, as Elder Wilson initially said, simply a religious liberty violation because of interference in church affairs by the Burundi government. Claims of financial irregularities in the union mission and the ECD do not appear to have been fully resolved. Church relationships are complicated by ethnic factionalism. At least some of those imprisoned were not being persecuted: they were arrested because they were perpetrating violence against one another. Nor is the answer as simple as returning the GC’s selected leaders to power.

Diop confirms in the Adventist News article of 14 May, “The situation in Burundi is both complex and sensitive and is being driven by many different forces—some of which we are aware of, and some of which we have yet to fully understand.” 

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