The President of the Republic of Burundi, the country in the heart of Africa where more than 200,000 people died during its recent civil war, met leading churchmen in Northern Ireland yesterday.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, a committed Christian, met leaders of the four main churches in Armagh. He briefed them on the role of the Church in Burundi during its years of conflict, and subsequent peace-building.
Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Alan Harper and the Roman Catholic Primate Cardinal Sean Brady spoke about the challenges facing the churches in Northern Ireland in dealing with reconciliation.
As part of his four-day visit to the Province, President Nkurunziza also went to the Forthspring Inter-Community Centre on the Springfield Road in west Belfast.
While there, he addressed an invited audience of community activists and voluntary sector workers about the challenges involved in trying to achieve post-conflict reconciliation, and the relationship between poverty/social need and the search for accommodation between ethnic communities.
From his arrival on Tuesday until he departs today, President Nkurunziza met with politicians, senior government officials and inter-community groups who have been instrumental in creating the current political climate within the Province.
The Rev Trevor Stevenson, of Irish-based charity Fields of Life, which invited the President Nkurunziza to Northern Ireland, believes this is an opportunity to discuss reconciliation progress in both countries. His visit is a symbol of how far the political process has moved forward.
“We are thrilled to have President Nkurunziza here as a guest of Fields of Life. The strong message that he hopes to convey is that through the word of God, forgiveness can be found in the bleakest of times,” he said.
The President, a former university lecturer at Burundi University, was elected President in 2005.
Fields of Life charity, formed over a decade ago to change lives and build sustainable communities in East Africa, was founded by businessmen intent on helping disadvantaged areas throughout the continent.
Mr Stevenson has witnessed at first hand the work that Fields of Life are doing in East Africa, and hopes that a lasting bond can be forged by Northern Ireland and Burundi.
“A goal would be to twin Burundi and Northern Ireland together, therefore to forge an everlasting relationship between the two regions. Everyone is in a position where they can help. In the coming months we will be sending a number of teams out to Burundi to help re-build lives with the help of the Fields of Life Kampala team in Uganda.
“The President’s visit helps to highlight both the plight of Burundi and the work that Fields of Life are currently involved in. It is vital that Burundi’s profile remains in the public’s mindset,” he said.
Burundi has recently emerged from years of ethnic violence, predominantly between members of the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, in a conflict similar to that experienced by its neighbour, Rwanda. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world.
President Nkurunziza was formerly a member of a Hutu rebel army and was seriously injured in a bomb explosion during the civil war in Burundi.
The Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel Project has been closely involved in developing the programme for his trip.
The Rev Earl Storey, Hard Gospel director, said: “The President is firmly committed to meeting the challenge of reconciliation and social need in Burundi. He brings lessons learned in Burundi in addressing both reconciliation and poverty, and reflect on how both challenges interact.”