The Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana, minister of the Unitarian Church in Burundi, has been in police custody in the capital Bujumbura since at least Wednesday, November 18, in what the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) has called “persecution for reasons of faith.” Ndagijimana’s supporters are concerned about his physical safety as the political and human rights situations in Burundi continue to deteriorate.
Update 11.27.15: Ndagijimana is no longer in police custody and has left Burundi, reported the Rev. Steve Dick, executive director of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, on November 27.
“This is deeply distressing. We know what goes on during these arbitrary detentions, and it’s often the worst things you can imagine,” said Gabrielle Bardall, a doctoral candidate in political science at University of Montréal, Quebec, whose work focuses on Burundi. Bardall, a lifelong UU, said she attended Ndagijimana’s congregation while living in the country until the security situation detriorated this spring.
Ndagijimana is a member of the executive team of the ICUU, a coalition of Unitarian and Universalist national organizations. Many U.S. and Canadian Unitarian Universalists have met him over the course of several visits to North America.
The details of Ndagijimana’s detention are still unclear. At one point over the past week, he was removed from his church at gunpoint and taken outside the city for questioning before being released, according to the Rev. Jill McAllister, ICUU’s senior program consultant. (Reports differ on who was responsible.) Later, police arrested Ndagijimana and charged him with financial mismanagement, McAllister said.
“He remains courageous, but he fears for his security,” a source in Burundi with direct knowledge of Ndagijimana’s situation wrote to supporters in the U.S. “Our friend sleeps next to his executioners,” the source added. “I remain very troubled by this, and sad.”
Supporters asked that UU World not print the source’s name, out of concerns for the person’s safety.
Contacted by phone on Friday, a spokesperson for Burundi’s ambassador to the United States said the embassy was not familiar with Ndagijimana’s case and declined to comment. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said he did not have information on Ndagijimana and would pass UU World’s inquiry to the U.S. embassy in Bujumbura.
Burundi has a history of ethnic conflict, civil war, and genocide. The latest unrest began in April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would seek a controversial third term in office. That set off three weeks of protests and violence before the presidential elections, along with a brief coup d’état.
Nkurunziza won a third term on July 21, after opposition parties decided to boycott the election. The United Nation’s Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi later concluded (PDF) that “the overall environment was not conducive for an inclusive, free, and credible electoral process.”
The violence has only grown worse since then, according to the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and a former executive director of Amnesty International USA. That’s due in large part, Schulz said, to the police, government-aligned militias, and the ruling party’s armed youth wing, called the Imbonerakure.
“Both in the run-up to the election and especially since then, there has been widespread intimidation of political opponents, intellectuals, journalists, lawyers — anyone whom the president and his party regard as a threat to his continuing authority there,” Schulz explained.
The Unitarian Church in Burundi (Assemblée des chrétiens unitariens du Burundi) sits in Musaga, a neighborhood of the capital, that has been at the center of the violence and protests. Ndagijimana established the church in 2002 as an alternative to the country’s dominant Roman Catholicism. The congregation dedicated its church building in 2011 and now counts around 75 members.
The church’s outreach efforts include domestic violence prevention, partnering with local schools, establishing scholarship programs, supporting microfinance initiatives, and developing a coalition of Unitarian Universalist churches in Francophone African countries.
The Burundi congregation’s work has become increasingly difficult in recent months, as the neighborhood around it has seen growing violence. On October 22, a group of ten people attacked the church with guns and grenades, according to an account by Ndagijimana posted to ICUU’s blog. The attackers stole money from the church, and two external walls showed pockmarks from grenade shrapnel, Ndagijimana wrote. But damage to the building was minimal, and no one was hurt. It is not clear whether the attack has any relation to Ndagijimana’s arrest.
The congregation’s international supporters spent much of Thursday contacting embassies to raise Ndagijimana’s case, according to McAllister. They’ve set up a blog post and a Facebook page with more information that include action items for individuals and congregations. A Change.org petition calling for Ndagijimana’s release, set up by the Rev. Tet Gallardo of the UU Church of the Philippines, had 1,151 signatures at press time.
Meanwhile, concern is growing that the situation in Burundi could be headed toward a second civil war, or even genocide. Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon called for an end to “the recurring violence and killings” after several high-profile assassinations, including two family members of a prominent Burundian human-rights advocate. Thousands of people across the country have been detained, at least 240 have been killed, and over 200,000 have fled; mutilation, assassination, and torture are widespread, according to Bardall.
“In the past couple of weeks alone, two of my colleagues have been killed, with the United Nations,” said Bardall. “In one of those cases, the man was assassinated with his wife, their two children, and the nephew, who was a U.N. colleague. It is a brutal regime, and the conflict is escalating.”
An earlier version of this story reported that government forces took Ndagijimana by gunpoint before temporarily releasing him. Sources differ about who took him initially.