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Commentary: What Seventh-day Adventists face in Burundi

An Appeal to the Rule of Law and Justice.

Commentary: What Seventh-day Adventists face in Burundi

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The following is a commentary on recent and concerning events in the African country of Burundi. For additional details and context to this developing story, we encourage you to also read a previously posted article available at this link. ~ Editors

The Seventh-day Adventist Church does not involve itself in the establishment or downfall of governments. Its official adherence to the principle of separation of religion and state precludes any entanglement in the affairs of any government or any state. Its 21 million members worldwide have the freedom to choose their political representatives according to their individual consciences. 

Religious freedom, the issue which is at the heart of the current crisis in Burundi, is not only the right to worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience, and the right of religious organizations to conduct their affairs without government interference, but is, at a deeper level, freedom from being harmed, hurt, intimidated, humiliated, persecuted, imprisoned, tortured or murdered. Violence against citizens to make them comply with the preferences of those who govern a country is utterly unethical and inhumane. Peaceful persuasion should always be preferred over coercion.

The internationally-affirmed principle of no coercion in matters of belief also applies to national governments, which should not intrude in the affairs of the Church.

This principle is violated whenever a government tries to dictate to the Church how to run its internal affairs. No government should attempt to influence the choice of Seventh-day Adventist leaders. This is simply unacceptable. If the Church allows this kind of intrusion, its own raison d’être would be jeopardized as a space where the foundational status of freedom of conscience undergirds all other freedoms.

A government can appropriately object to the appointment of any citizen if it proves beyond reasonable doubt that such leader has broken the law of the land. But without the basic core principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” foundational to any legitimate judicial system, the law sinks into arbitrariness. Without this basic protection, no one is immune from arbitrary accusations, slander, arrests and imprisonment. In other words, no one should be accused without evidence. If the government has evidence against the duly-elected new leader, then it is its moral duty to press charges rather than allowing the perpetration of possible corruption. Accusations and allegations without due judicial process are an abuse of prerogatives.

Moreover, if the government were to demonstrate that the duly-elected leader is not fit for office in Burundi, for cause, it can use the venues of justice present in its own constitution. Then, the Church would have to act on compelling proofs that the leader it had chosen is not fit to lead the church in Burundi. Until that is proven, however, there is no basis to dismiss a duly-elected leader.

In the case of Burundi, the core violation of religious liberty is the refusal of the government to accept the decision of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to elect its leaders in freedom and without interference. 

The delegation sent by the president of the world Seventh-day Adventist Church at the invitation of the Minister of Interior to resolve the crisis in the succession of leadership in Burundi went in all good faith to listen to the proposal of the minister. We reported back the suggestion of the minister. The broad and diverse representation of leaders who received the report carefully considered options that would maintain the integrity of the decision of the executive committee of the Church in the East-Central Africa Division (region) while being mindful of the concerns of the government of Burundi to secure civil cohesion. 

The mandate of the delegation was not that of a fact-finding mission, nor was it to side with one camp and get entangled in differences of interpretations and opinions. We were sent to listen to the Minister of Interior, and we accurately reported back his proposal. We took the opportunity to spiritually encourage church members. But we were certainly not an investigation squad. 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 of 11 nations in East-Central Africa. In its working policy, the Adventist Church has mechanisms to express one’s grievances regardless of a decision of a committee. As a delegation, our focus was to find a way with the government to end the stand-off regarding who the legal representative is or should be.

It would have been simple to accept the church’s proposal to allow the legal representative of the church be the treasurer of the Union, while allowing the duly elected union president to attend to spiritual and administrative affairs of the church entrusted to his care. But the government’s representative we visited in all good faith insisted on his own plan. The situation escalated with the government support of a person removed from his function as representative of the church.

The intransigence of the government seen in dismissing the Church’s proposal to allow the Union treasurer to be the legal representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi has been surprising. It will certainly not aid in maintaining the peaceful cohesion of a country to which the Adventist Church is committed for sustainable development. There are currently 23 Adventist schools and five clinics/dispensaries in Burundi. The remarkable work of Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA) is a vital asset to the country. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has plans to do much more for the country of Burundi.

The Burundi government’s decision to maintain in leadership a person whom the church removed from his functions was not a wise choice. In addition, the former union president has been deprived of his pastoral credentials by the church he once served. The coercive nature of this imposition of a leader the Church has removed from his post is not in accordance with the respect due to ecclesiastical institutions. Empowering and enabling a demoted former church employee is unwarranted and unhelpful. He can no longer in any way represent the Seventh-day Adventist church. His refusal to leave office appears a sabotage of the functioning of the Adventist Church in a country where Adventists occupy positions of responsibility to loyally and wholeheartedly serve their country. His illegal occupation of the Church offices with the help of the police prevents the duly elected officials from needed access to church property.

Even more concerning, the Burundi government arrested Seventh-day Adventist church leaders, and it is our hope that—contrary to some reports—they have not been subjected to any form of violence.This unwarranted action exacerbates the fragile fabric of a society in need of peace after a difficult past of civil unrest and tribal challenges. Seventh-day Adventists are careful to abide by the law of the land while being loyal to the beliefs, principles, working policies and mode of operations of their church. 

As committed Christians, there is no animosity in our hearts against any member of the government. We will continue to respect their dignity and appeal to the best of their humanity. 

This unfortunate situation is wholly unnecessary and could have been easily avoided. Good will from the country’s leaders in de-escalating the tension could be shown by letting the church run its own affairs according to its own internal working policies. 

Government interference in church affairs never leads to peace in the society. Such actions create traumas, incite grievances and promote dissatisfactions. They are costly to a country that needs peace and prosperity.

Even now, there is still time to reverse this self-inflicted wound. Seventh-day Adventist members, numbering 186,000 in Burundi, and the church to which they belong are blessings to the country of Burundi. The Church and its members are committed to the wellbeing of the people of the country. 

This commitment to respecting, showing solidarity and serving the people of Burundi is anchored in a conviction which Nelson Mandela memorably expressed: “To deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” We hope to partner with the leadership of the country to affirm every one’s humanity and rights, including the legitimate leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Despite differences in approach and opinions, we owe and continue to show respect and consideration to all government officials. We believe in the solidarity of the whole human family.

We pray that the leadership of this country will see wisdom in staying within the boundaries of their functions and refrain from interfering in the affairs of the Church.

May wisdom and peace prevail in Burundi, a country wrestling to elevate its citizens to peace and life in dignity.