From Persecuted to Persecutor: The Growing Crisis in Burundi has Worsened
January 7, 2021 by Andy Roman
Once upon a time in Burundi, there was peace and unity. Back in September of 2018 there was a spirit of cooperation in this central African nation. Burundi was a wonderful place and a shining example of what the church was supposed to be. The General Conference leaders here in the United States could not praise Burundi enough. 
An evangelistic campaign was held from July 6-21, 2018 the likes that had never been seen before. The meetings created a “positive image of the Adventist Church” as “the Adventist name began splashing across local news headlines, people questioned who these people were.” A total of 43,000 people were baptized during the campaign. 
This was truly a blessing and a modern day miracle. And thanks in part to the organizing efforts of Joseph Ndikubwayo, president of the Adventist Church in Burundi. The Burundi Union Mission, part of the East-Central Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists, experienced unprecedented church growth.
Oh, but what about the corrupt government of Burundi? What corrupt government? There was none. There were no violations of civil rights. There was no persecution, at least not according to the General Conference. Notice the amazing revelation they published in 2018:
“AY (Adventist Youth) groups performed in Independence Day parades, impressing government officials with their routine. The president of Burundi, His Excellency Pierre Nkurunziza, congratulated the Adventist Church for having such an excellent program for youth and invited the young people to participate in any other important events in the nation. Nkurunziza gave a cash gift of One million Burundi Francs (roughly $500 USD) to the youth as a gesture of his appreciation.” 
This happened during the amazing evangelistic campaign. The government of Burundi was a friend. They were impressed with the Seventh-day Adventists, as was the rest of the nation. What a wonderful recognition and collaboration. We had a happy united church. Membership was exploding. There were baptisms and evangelism. There was no persecution and even the president of the country was on our side. That was in September 2018. What could possibly go wrong?
From Total Member Involvement to Total Chaos
The working relationship between Seventh-day Adventists in the country of Burundi has come to an end. Total Member Involvement has turned into accusations, violence, bloody attacks and arrests among church members. Chaos has spilled onto the streets and into the media across the country. Who is to blame? Well that depends on who you ask.
According to news sources, in just two months after the evangelistic campaign the faith crisis started. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists conducted a financial audit of the Burundi Union Mission. In November of 2018 financial irregularities uncovered an “embezzlement of 300,000,000 Burundi franks” (around $150,000 US dollars)  at the Burundi Union Mission.
The East Central Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists decided to replace all executive officers of the Burundi Union Mission, which included Leonard Biratevye, the treasurer; Paul Irakoze, the executive secretary and star president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi, Pastor Joseph Ndikubwayo, the organizer of the successful evangelistic campaign. The division dismissed them on November 6, 2018 and a new president of the Burundi Union Mission, Lamec Barishinga, was appointed.
Joseph Ndikubwayo refused to step down as president and did not recognize the new appointment of Lamec Barishinga. In fact, Joseph Ndikubwayo filed a complaint with the Burundi Ministry of the Interior. Due to Joseph Ndikubwayo’s good reputation and his connection and relationship with the Burundi government, the government decided to back him up. That is understandable because in the eyes of the Burundi government, he was an impressive, popular and successful administrator.
On March 7-8, 2019, the Government of Burundi received a delegation from the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists who expressed that Lamec Barishinga be recognized as the legitimate representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. On April 17, 2019, the government from Burundi refused to recognize Lamec Barishinga, saying that Joseph Ndijubwayo would continue to serve on a transition team until the Seventh-day Adventist Church could elect new officers sometime in 2021.
So the church split into two factions. The Joseph faction had the backing of the state and the Lamec faction was supported by the East-Central Africa Division and the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
The following month, on May 10, 2019, Pastor Lamec Barishinga and 21 other leaders who sided with him were arrested. The arrest occurred because Joseph Ndijubwayo had the support of the government that gave him control of the church’s bank accounts, institutions and properties. Unfortunately, the Lamec faction in their attempt to continue operating as legitimate leaders were seen as operating outside the law. Clashes and violence between the two camps erupted in various parts of the nation, and one side had the law behind it, the other did not.
On May 13, 2019, General Conference President Ted Wilson weighed in on the controversy and issued the following protest:
“I am earnestly appealing to Seventh-day Adventist church members, and others worldwide, to begin a strong, worldwide prayer initiative for our members and church organization in the central African country of Burundi, who are experiencing systematic religious liberty abuse by the government. For more than six months, the Burundi government has increasingly harassed and abused the Seventh-day Adventist Church by imprisoning, beating, and intimidating Seventh-day Adventist church leaders and members” 
“I have personally appealed to the president of Burundi with no response from his office. We now call on him and his government ministries to adhere to international law, United Nations protocols, and Organization of African Union precepts, to honor religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all citizens of Burundi and the legitimate Seventh-day Adventist administrative team in the country.” 
The problems were much more than a simple “systematic abuse of religious freedom.” The issues included leadership positions, access to church accounts and church property. Ganoune Diop stated the following:
“In addition, a group connected with the former union president, [Joseph faction] with support from the government, has taken control of church buildings preventing current church administration from entering. Intimidation and assault of Adventists by Burundi police officers has also been captured on video and posted on social media. Despite months of prayer and attempts to negotiate with the government for the release of the buildings and cessation of abuse, little progress has been made. 
The Seventh-day Adventists who were part of Joseph’s group were in control and, tragically, abuses occurred against Lamec’s group. Many Seventh-day Adventists who did not recognize Joseph Ndijubwayo as the rightful leader were barred from worshiping in church buildings controlled by Joseph. The police had to intervene in several instances. The police did not act independently but were called in to protect the side that the government had deemed the “legitimate” group of Seventh-day Adventists. 
Those who supported the Lamec group were harassed and abused. Obviously, not everyone participated in these civil and religious rights violations, but quite a few did.  The General Conference responded by launching a #PrayforBurundi campaign.  President Ted Wilson published a total of 10 letters calling for religious freedom, the release of its members from prison and an end to the abuse and harassment of the church-backed Lamec faction.
On January 3, 2020 and August 20, 2020, Interior Minister Gervais Ndirakobuca and head of the National Intelligence Service called on both sides of Seventh-day Adventists to end the violence and conflict. These talks did not lead to any resolution and the chaos continued. Fights and attacks escalated on both sides. These confrontations between Adventists were broadcast across the country through the media outlets and social media. Police were constantly called in to intervene on the Sabbath due to fights between church members.
The Tables Turn
Finally, on September 21, 2020, Interior Minister Gervais Ndirakobuca called for a reconciliation meeting. All the leaders of both camps in Burundi attended. At this meeting, both Lamec and Joseph were rejected. The Burundi government approved the establishment of a new transition team led by Daniel Bavugubusa. Daniel Bavugubusa and three other men were appointed by the East-Central Africa Division of Seventh-day Adventists to be the new head of the Adventist Church in Burundi until new elections could be held, scheduled for July 2020. 
The Burundi government had spoken and its decision was final. Daniel Bavugubusa was the new person in charge. In this reconciliation meeting, Joseph Ndijubwayo lost control. The new transitional leader, Daniel, told the opposition group of Adventists that they could be rebaptized but that they had to resign from their posts. In other words, the Joseph faction had became the new illegitimate group. And the Lamec faction became the Daniel faction with the full support of the General Conference. 
To help secure the new transition team, Minister Gervais Ndirakobuca gave a warning to anyone trying to disrupt the implementation of this decision.  Minister Gervais Ndirakobuca, the Burundi government official, held up the General Conference Working Policy manual and said this is what everyone needs to follow. Minister Gervais Ndirakobuca told Seventh-day Adventist pastors and leaders to “follow the code of conduct for Adventist churches.” 
The government of Burundi set the rules for Adventist leaders in both camps to follow. In other words, if you’re going to be considered legitimate and official, you’d better follow the General Conference Working Policy.
Minister Gervais Ndirakobuca used to be a general in the rebel army and his nickname is “Ndakugarika” or “I will kill you.” He has been sanctioned by the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Switzerland for serious human rights violations during the bloody repression of the civil war in Burundi. 
After the reconciliation meeting on September 21, 2020, Joseph Ndikubwayo and his followers became the group that was no longer approved by the government. Nor did they have the support of the division or general conference. Daniel Bavugubusa became the official leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the eyes of the church and the law.
President Ted Wilson came out and thanked the government of Burundi. Just ten days after the General Conference secured its leadership position and property in Burundi, President Wilson published the following:
- “We thank the Lord and the government in helping church groups to meet on Sabbaths. May there be continued progress in the religious liberty activities of God’s church as you continue to be gracious and helpful citizens of Burundi.
- “What a privilege to proclaim the final Advent movement messages of Revelation 14 and Revelation 18.
- “Let us continue to pray for the country of Burundi and its designated leaders.
- “Religious liberty is one of the foundations of prosperous and progressive countries in the world.
- “Let us pray for the latter rain of the Holy Spirit so that God’s work on earth can be accomplished and we can see Jesus come and take us home with Him to heaven.
- “Keep your eyes focused on the Lord in your loving service to others in Burundi as you happily announce the Lord’s soon return.” 
What was the Real Problem?
An op-ed was published in the local media asking why President Ted Wilson blamed the Burundi government for all the problems. The article argued that the Burundi government was not interested in persecuting Seventh-day Adventists because the Burundian president had already participated in the opening ceremony of their national evangelistic campaign in 2018.
The article also made the following revelations:
“The issue at the center of the fighting within the SDA Church in Burundi is simply a deep leadership crisis coupled with factional interests of influential members of the church. It is neither an infringement to the freedom of religion nor government-sponsored harassment against some church leaders as published in the social media. The intervention of the Burundi Government has been mainly linked to restoring order and security as the warring parties have been causing disorder and threatening the safety of citizens in areas where the local branches of the SDA church are located. A group of church members suspected of being manipulated by some of the pastors in custody tried to use violence in preventing other pastors from preaching on various occasions.” 
The Burundi government was not indiscriminately persecuting the Seventh-day Adventist Church as Ted Wilson had reported in 2019. The government was simply trying to restore order from the chaos that was occurring in the churches and spilling out onto the streets. Oh, but what about the video that both Ted Wilson  and Ganoune Diop  described on how the police were brutally beating worshipers in the church? Unfortunately, that was not the whole story.
The truth is that those police officers were arrested and put behind bars. But the reason the police showed up at the church in the first place was simply because Ted Wilson’s church members were fighting in the sanctuary and attacking the police. Take a look at what the local news reported on this same incident:
“According to Désirée Bizimana, public prosecutor in Ngozi province, two police officers are already behind bars. Following the broadcast of videos showing police violently beating people in a church.” 
“According to Pierre Nkurikiye, spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Security, there had been a fight that day between two rival camps within this Church. The group not recognized by law (Ted Wilson’s group) has caused unrest. The police have been alerted. Arriving at the scene, they were greeted by throwing stones from the group. Three policemen were injured. Pierre Nkurikiye informs that a person among the faithful has been apprehended and other suspects are actively sought by the police.” 
Did Ted Wilson and Ganoune Diop report all the facts about this event? No. They only provided links in their letters to the short video of what the police did and never mentioned what their members were doing. The government of Burundi did three things:
1. The government refused to delegitimize Joseph Ndikubwayo, the president of the Union and extended his post until new legal representation could be established. The 2018 Total Member Involvement evangelistic campaign was such a success under Joseph that the government did not want to throw him under the bus until the church could elect a neutral third party. 
2. The government did not accept Lamec Barishinga because they considered him part of those who were causing strife and contentions within the country.
3. On September 21, 2020, the government approved Daniel Bavugubusa to be in charge and lead the transition team. All control and property of the church was returned to the representatives of the General Conference.
Since everything was restored to the General Conference, what has happened? Supporters of the current leader, Daniel Bavugubusa, accuse those who support Joseph Ndihokubwayo of refusing to comply with the Interior Ministry’s decision, now that the law is on their side. They accuse them of not being “true” Adventists.
Coincidentally, during the same month that President Ted Wilson thanked the Burundi government and praised its efforts at “religious freedom” and its restoration of church property and authority to the “legitimate” Seventh-day Adventist Church, Joseph Ndihokubwayo and some of his fellow leaders were arrested and jailed. 
Joseph’s followers are now being attacked and excluded from churches by the police. Now they are being threatened and harassed. The same systemic violations of religious freedom denounced by Ted Wilson continue to occur. This time Joseph’s followers are being targeted. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1322544960336547843&lang=en&origin=http%3A%2F%2Fadventmessenger.org%2Ffrom-persecuted-to-persecutor-the-growing-crisis-in-burundi-has-worsened%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=500px
When the General Conference leaders weren’t in power, they cried “abuse.” Now that they are in power and the same tactics are being used against the opposition, they say, “Well, that’s too bad.” Brothers and sisters, is this how religious liberty works?
And, tragically, there are no calls from Ted Wilson or Ganoune Diop to pray for the new people going to jail. Nor are there any calls to pray for the new people being excluded from their churches. Apparently, religious freedom is not for everyone. It is only for those who are part of the “legitimate” group. When our people were not in control, we denounced these same abuses by the authorities. But now that we are back in power, not a word is said about the abuses against the “illegitimate” party.
AdventMessenger.org has many readers from Africa and I have been receiving emails, photos and videos from people in Burundi who are now the new targets of the current church administration. I have spoken with Seventh-day Adventists who have been members of the church for over 50 years and they have told me over the phone that Daniel Bavugubusa travels with members of the Burundi government and visits certain “problem churches” and tells them who can and can’t serve as officers. He is also dictating to some local churches who can and who cannot be members of their congregations. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-1&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1319941509307863040&lang=en&origin=http%3A%2F%2Fadventmessenger.org%2Ffrom-persecuted-to-persecutor-the-growing-crisis-in-burundi-has-worsened%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=500px
Anyone who resists or attempts to question Daniel’s authority is arrested and taken to jail by the government officials who accompany Daniel Bavugubusa. In some cases Daniel Bavugubusa has confiscated keys from the church members who built their churches by hand. Again, anyone that resists is immediately arrested and is some cases beaten. I’m told that at least on one occasion the police that travel with Daniel have fired their guns to intimidate our fellow believers who are meeting in church.
This is the man who has the full support of the Division and the General Conference. This same man is dictating policies and using the police to shut down churches and facilities that don’t follow his instructions. I’m not making these stories up. This is what they tell me. Now the police are being used to enforce compliance and target new illegitimate Adventists.
When we didn’t have religious liberty we asked the world church to pray, now that our religious freedoms have been restored, we are too busy calling the police on our fellow believers. Since everything was given back to the General Conference leaders, what have we done? We are using the police to shut down the other side. I have been told that anyone who is not in lock-step with Daniel Bavugubusa is told to leave and find another faith. They tell me that their answer is no, they would rather die than give up their faith in our message.
Violence is still taking place. Two camps still exist. Now a new persecuted group is being targeted, harassed, intimidated and in many instances shot at. Now the police are forbidding a new group of people from entering the churches for worship. The most troubling news that is being communicated to me by some of the most senior members is that Adventism has become the laughingstock in Burundi. The other churches and even the government are making jokes about our people and our faith.
Well, some say, “They are the illegitimate group and they have no right to access our church buildings to worship.” What about when our side was the illegitimate group? We denounced these same acts of discrimination as “systematic abuse of religious freedom by the government.” Well, what now? Who is going to call for an end to these acts of violence?
But Andy, they are not the legitimate officially recognized group anymore. What about when we weren’t the official group in the eyes of the Burundi government? For over one year, the current leadership was not considered legitimate. And what did we do? We denounced the violence and the use of the military police against our people. Now that we are the legitimate group we remain silent as our people use the very same violence, intimidation and abuse that just a few months ago we forcefully and passionately denounced.
All of this brings the Seventh-day Adventist name into disrepute. The Burundi government was our friend in 2018 while they were attending our events, giving us contributions and opening up their country for us to work. Then they became our adversary when they took away our leadership positions and properties, closed our churches and harassed our people. Now, government leaders are good again? Ted Wilson said so. He thanked them for the progress being made. What about the persecution being conducted against the other side? Well, some say, that doesn’t involve us. Let them go join another church. So is this how it works? Religious liberty is for some but not for all?
And somehow, we are praying for the Latter Rain to help us finish the work of spreading the gospel. The problem is that we cannot transmit to the world the final warning message of God’s love and mercy like this. Ministry begins in our own home. We need to clean up our own mess. We need to fix our own house before we can talk about the problems in society. We don’t need an Adventist Pope dictating to everyone how to feel, what to think and what to say.
We must declare war on the apostasy and corruption found within our ranks before we go out into spiritual war in this world. And isn’t it amazing that it took just over one year to restore our properties and positions in Burundi. Imagine that? Just over one year. The church spared no expense and left no stone uncovered. The church started a campaign on social media and engaged in a letter-writing campaign to church and government leaders in order to restore our position of authority and to secure our properties. What about the apostasy?
Where is the same urgency and motivation to end corruption in the church? How many letters and campaigns are we going to engage in to restore purity and righteousness? Or do we only act when position and power and money are involved?
The work will never be finished, the Latter Rain will never be given and we cannot even begin to testify that we have been with Jesus while these dishonest, dictatorial political maneuvers are taking place. There is only one way to glorify God. You will not do it with force, power, fear or intimidation, but through selfless efforts. That’s talking about serving people with humility like Christ did. Thankfully, there will be a people somewhere who will accomplish God’s work during the closing time. Notice how it will happen:
“Self-denying efforts will be put forth to save the lost, and many who have strayed from the fold will come back to follow the great Shepherd. The people of God will draw together, and present to the enemy a united front … The love of Christ, the love of our brethren, will testify to the world that we have been with Jesus and learned of Him. Then will the message of the third angel swell to a loud cry, and the whole earth will be lightened with the glory of the Lord” (Evangelism, p. 693).