Influential Catholic Church withdraws support for Burundi elections; deals major blow to president Nkurunziza

Decision deeps crisis surrounding leader's uncompromising desire to stand for a third consecutive term in office.

BURUNDI’S influential Catholic Church said Thursday it was withdrawing support for upcoming elections in the crisis-hit country, dealing a fresh blow to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid to run for a third term.

A statement from Burundi’s bishops said that “after considering the manner in which the elections have been organised and the way they are evolving”, the Church had asked priests who serve in electoral commissions across the central African nation step down.

The announcement came the day after Burundi’s main opposition parties said it was now “impossible” to hold free and fair elections and that the result should not be recognised if they take place.

Parliamentary elections are due to be held on June 5, with a presidential poll scheduled for June 26. The UN Security Council also met on the crisis late Wednesday, with most of its 15 members also supporting a postponement.

In the statement, read out on Catholic radio by Bishop Gervais Bashimiyubusa, the Church said it “cannot endorse an election riddled with shortcomings”.

It nevertheless said people should vote, but stressed that nobody should go to the polls “by threat or intimidation, or because they have been bought in one way or another”.

“In the eyes of God, that would be slavery to evil,” Bashimiyubusa said.

The crisis surrounds Nkurunziza’s uncompromising desire to stand for a third consecutive term in office, with opposition and rights groups saying the move violates the constitution as well as the terms of a peace deal that ended a 13-year civil war in 2006.

That conflict, marked by brutal ethnic violence between the country’s ethnic Hutu and Tutsi communities, left hundreds of thousands of people dead, and there are fears the latest unrest could plunge the small, landlocked and impoverished nation back into widespread violence.

The crisis intensified earlier this month when a top general staged a failed coup attempt.

The Catholic Church has already spoken out against the president, saying it too has concluded his third-term bid goes against the peace deal.

Massive police presence
Street protests have taken place for the past month, leaving at least 30 people dead after a violent crackdown by security forces. There were more protests on Thursday in several parts of the lakeside capital of Bujumbura, with a massive police presence along main roads.

After a meeting on the crisis late Wednesday, the UN Security Council heard a report from UN envoy Said Djinnit on the turmoil.

“The predominant opinion was that elections were not possible to carry out in the present circumstances,” Lithuanian ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite told reporters.

The ambassador said council members cited tensions in the country, growing unrest and refugee flows as signs that “elections would not be sustainable in that kind of context”.

Russia support
But the top UN body has been divided over how to address the crisis, with Russia arguing that the council should support efforts to help Burundians resolve the dispute themselves.

Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian, argues that his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people. His bid for re-election also has strong support in rural areas and among sections of the Hutu majority.

Asked to rule on the issue of a third term, Burundi’s constitutional court found in the president’s favour, but not before one of the judges fled the country claiming its members had received death threats.

Analyst Willy Nindorera said the Church announcement was a major blow to the government—which has had to appeal to “patriotic citizens” to donate money so the elections can be held after key international donors stopped their funding.

“The electoral process has already been hurt by a credibility deficit, and the Catholic Church, which is a very highly respected moral authority, has put the nail in the coffin,” he said.

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