By John Martin in London

Clouds of fear hover over the east African nation of Burundi following a failed coup on May 13. Churches, however, are working to counter the purveyors of violence, and Christian agencies have moved swiftly to assess the needs of the swelling numbers of displaced persons.

The crisis in Burundi began in late April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to run for a third term in elections scheduled for June. Burundi’s constitution limits presidents to two terms. With Nkurunziza’s announcement people took to the streets in protest and there were violent clashes with the police.

The issue came to a head when army officers tried to stage a coup to displace Nkurunziza while he was attending a meeting in neighbouring Tanzania. Major General Godefroid Niyombare told reporters the president had been dismissed. But he and his accomplices failed to take control of the national radio station, vital in the circumstances. The president returned, dismissed several cabinet members, and regained control. Niyombare is on the run.

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Human-rights groups say at least 20 people have been killed and more than 100,000 have fled to neighbouring countries, including Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania. There are fears of a “severe humanitarian crisis” and cholera outbreaks due to shortages of clean drinking water.

The Rt. Rev. Jean Nduwayo, a senior Anglican bishop of the Diocese of Gitega, said his church wanted “respect of the constitution, and the Arusha Peace Agreement, and to promote the political dialogue between politicians and all partners in the electoral process.”

The Rt. Rev. Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, who has long-standing links with Burundi, told TLC that Burundi is “one of the poorest, neediest nations on earth.” Calling for prayers for Burundi, he added, “The deep unrest in Burundi is tragic for a nation seeking to rebuild itself after civil war ended in 2005. I know church leaders and churches are seeking to work for peace, nonviolence, and a way through for the whole nation.”

Church sources who did not want to be named told TLC that many journalists had been rounded up or had gone into hiding. Privately owned radio stations were burnt down or put out of commission.

Some Christian leaders were said to have access to the airwaves, using the government radio station and remaining Christian stations to broadcast messages opposing violence, and presenting apolitical programmes emphasising the sacredness of life, the need for compassion, and community engagement.

James Robinson, Burundi country manager for Christian Aid, said: “Many people have stayed indoors, not moving because of the threat of gunfire, wondering what will happen next. People are scared to leave their homes. After two weeks of protesting, supplies are also an issue with goods such as petrol and water becoming scarce.”

The worst fears, however, are that if the political crisis cannot be resolved, old ethnic tensions could resurface. A peace accord brokered in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2005 brought an end to a 12-year civil war between Hutu rebels and the mainly Tutsi army.

“The situation is so unstable and volatile that every day appears to be a flashpoint,” Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch’s senior Burundi researcher, told news agencies. “The demonstrators are not backing down and the government is intensifying its crackdown.”

Image of Pierre Nkurunziza at World Economic Forum on Africa, 2008 by Eric Miller/World Economic Forum, via Wikimedia Commons

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