Catholic bishops in Burundi came under fire from authorities for “spitting venomous hatred” over a damning message read out in churches Sunday denouncing intolerance and political violence ahead of 2020 elections.
The message issued by the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Burundi and read out in churches expressed their “concern” eight months ahead of the May 20 presidential election comes five years after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term plunged the country into crisis.
In the letter seen by AFP, the bishops raised the alarm over efforts to “suffocate and assault certain political parties and to persecute their members. Criminal acts go as far as murders with political motives… perpetrated against those with different opinions to the government.”
They also said the ruling party’s youth league — the feared Imbonerakure which the UN has accused of atrocities — had “taken the place of security forces”.
Presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe lashed out at the bishops on Twitter after the message leaked on social media ahead of the church services.
“Some bishops should be defrocked because it is becoming a habit: on the eve of elections they spit their venomous hatred through incendiary messages,” he wrote on Saturday.
The secretary general of the ruling CNDD-FDD Evariste Ndayishimiye meanwhile accused the bishops of “sowing division”.
“It is shameful to spread hatred among the faithful,” he told a political gathering Saturday.
A team of investigators from the United Nations earlier this month warned of a climate of fear in Burundi ahead of the elections, with crimes against humanity and other serious violations continuing with impunity.
“The commission found that the eight common risk factors for criminal atrocities are present in Burundi,” it said, insisting that “the evolving situation must be monitored with the greatest vigilance.”
The Imbonerakure especially have carried out killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and rape against actual or alleged political opposition members, the investigators said.
At least 1,200 people were killed in violence in the wake of the 2015 election and more than 400,000 were displaced in violence between April 2015 and May 2017 the UN says was mostly carried out by state security forces.
In a surprise development, Nkurunziza announced last year that he would not stand for election in 2020, confounding critics who accused him of working to extend his grip on power.
Relations soured between the government of Nkurunziza, a devout evangelical, and the Catholic Church after it opposed his third-term bid in 2015.