As a Pentecostal priest in Burundi, Sebastien believed that his job was to guide the spiritual life of the community, without meddling with politics. When turmoil swept the country after the 2015 elections, he faced a heart-wrenching dilemma. His choice wound up saving a life—and forever changing his own.
Sebastien was born into a poor family of farmers in Mukike, a remote mountain village in the southeast. Growing up, he built a reputation for being an intelligent, generous child, whom everyone in the village loved dearly. When he completed secondary school, he joined the army for eight years, until he decided to follow the calling of his faith. He returned to Mukike and became a priest.
Until the last couple of years, Mukike had never played an important role in Burundi’s politics. But when in 2015 President Nkurunziza announced his bid for a third term, and violent protests erupted all across the country, several rebel groups took refuge on the inaccessible peaks surrounding the village.
At this time, our local team was rolling out the project Our Country, Our Future—an initiative to reduce the risk of political violence in the lead-up, during, and after the Presidential elections. One of the core elements of this project was a series of workshops and trainings on conflict transformation and nonviolent communication for local religious leaders; the goal was to help them incorporate messages of tolerance and acceptance for diverse opinions in their sermons, and turn them into mediators for conflicts at the local level. When our staff brought the project to Mukike’s commune, Sebastien became one of the most curious and enthusiastic participants.
“As a religious leader, I thought that I didn’t have a role to play in conflict management,” Sebastien told us. “I saw that political violence is a cursed business […] that I couldn’t [get] involved with.” In his sermons, he stayed away from anything that could be perceived as political.
Once he joined our project, his perspective started to change. Sebastien learned about peaceful conflict resolution, human rights, and how to deal with people partaking in violence. The terms used in the training were very similar to those he knew from the Bible; that made it easy for him to apply the training’s teaching to his own life and preaching. Sebastien developed a new awareness of how, as a spiritual leader, he could be a positive influence in the daily lives of people in his village, who suddenly found themselves at the center of political turmoil.
Then, Sebastien’s newfound determination faced its most arduous test.
At the time, Sebastien was occasionally administering the sacraments to inmates in Burundian prisons, which were filling up with people thought to be involved in the political protests erupting all across the country. One day, a terrified young inmate named Louis sat down in front of Sebastien for the rite of confession. The story of his harrowing ordeal left a deep impression on the priest.
One day, Louis’s older brother, who was suspected of involvement in armed rebel groups, had been shot. Shortly thereafter, he had managed to return to his house, where he had left his phone before reaching a clandestine hospital to treat his wounds. Louis had arrived home from school and found his brother’s phone when the police broke into the house and arrested him. Without receiving any formal charges, Louis was brought to the penitentiary and put into a cell no larger than 8 square meters with five other prisoners.
Weeks went by with no news from the outside until Louis heard that his older brother was dead. Desperate and fearing for his own life, he asked to see a priest. That priest was Sebastien.
Sebastien was shaken by Louis’ confession. To him, the boy’s imprisonment seemed arbitrary and unfair. He took his case to heart, and—for the first time—decided to get involved. He knew that advocating for a person suspected of affiliation with armed groups could be dangerous, but what he had learned during our training gave him the courage he needed.
His new skills as a mediator, his role as a spiritual leader, and the fact that he didn’t personally know Louis helped Sebastien be perceived as a neutral party. He asked to meet the police inspector in charge of Louis’ case, overcame his diffidence, and established a climate of mutual trust.
“How long have you known this young man for?” the inspector asked during their first encounter, assuming that the priest and the accused were related in some way.
“Love has no conditions of knowledge,” Sebastien answered.
Impressed by the priest’s compassion and determination, the inspector promised him that the police would carry out a rigorous, fair investigation of Louis’s case. They found no evidence of wrongdoing and, shortly after, Louis was freed and returned to his family home.
Louis hopes that his story and Sebastian’s can set an example for others. “I would thank Search. Before, I had only heard of Search on the radio. But now having an opportunity to tell my story gives me dignity,” he said when we met him. “I hope this story doesn’t stay with me. I hope it can be used. Maybe this can […] show [what] the people who were trained [by Search] have done for others.”
Today, Sebastien is still in Mukike. Every day, he continues to advocate for nonviolence and the protection of human rights in his sermons, and so do many other religious and community leaders reached by our training. Since Our Country, Our Future arrived in Mukike, the relationship between the police and the local population has dramatically improved.
Sebastien no longer hesitates to advocate for the imprisoned and the marginalized. “Because I know I have Search’s support, I am no longer afraid of the consequences,” he concluded.
Learn more about our work in Burundi on the official country page.
Floride Ahitungiye is the Country Director at Search for Common Ground – Burundi.
Reverien Bigirimana is a Senior Trainer at Search for Common Ground, based in Bujumbura.