The Colors of Inequality: 2016 UU-UNO Intergenerational Spring Seminar

This guest post on our blog is from Isabella Gavanski, one of the Youth participants in this year’s Intergenerational Spring Seminar – The Colors of Inequality: Costs and Consequences.


My name is Isabella Gavanski, I am 15 years old and I attend the Lakeshore Unitarian Universalist Church in the Montreal, Quebec area. I recently had the incredible opportunity to attend the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) Intergenerational Spring Seminar and I have to say it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had so far in my life.

To begin, the Seminar was highly educational. A tremendous amount of information was shared with us about the topic: The Colors of Inequality – Costs and Consequences. We learned about inequality within countries, how it affects our economic systems and politics, how it is connected to climate change, incarceration, solitary confinement and much more. It was an eye-opening experience, with many fascinating presentations and astonishing facts along the way. But that wasn’t all: the educational component was only one element of the Seminar. It was also an incredibly enriching social experience. I was also able to meet and share my thoughts with many other Unitarian Youth during our stay at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York. I also had the opportunity to listen and learn from the adults when we had Collaboration Group meetings in between the panels.

Five Mualimm-ak describes the physical, psychological, social, and economic consequences of solitary confinement.
Five Mualimm-ak describes the physical, psychological, social, and economic consequences of solitary confinement.

One of the presentations that was most shocking to me was about solitary confinement. The presenter, Five Mualimm-ak, gave an enlightening presentation about the justice system and his time in solitary confinement. The facts and statistics he shared with us were eye-opening and his story was tragic. Apparently, there are 80,000 – 100,000 Americans being tortured in solitary confinement right at this moment. In New York State, 5 out of 6 incarcerated people are in solitary confinement for non-violent behavior. But the statistic I found most horrific was that 48% of those in extreme isolation in NYC are children — that is, under 18 years old! The effects of solitary confinement are very serious, as it can cause brain damage, temporary blindness and other serious physical and mental health problems including insanity. To make the whole matter even worse, people in solitary confinement are routinely denied access to medical treatment and services. Those facts seemed so unbelievable. How could they possibly be true? I was shocked at how inhuman we can be toward our fellow humans.

Dr. David Kirkland presents on the consequences of inequalities in education systems.
Dr. David Kirkland presents on the consequences of inequalities in education systems.

Another presentation that I found to be particularly moving and emotional was a rap song done by David E. Kirkland. I’m sure his rap deeply touched every single person in the room. He spoke of racism in the education system and relayed some of his experiences as a child living with a single mom. He also told us of a student who just needed a push in the right direction but was instead scolded by his teacher, which damaged his will to learn. His words were so beautifully written and spoken, I was absolutely mesmerized. Through his descriptive presentation and rap, he showed us what it is like in a world where you are treated differently because of the color of your skin. I was deeply affected by his music and what I learned.

 

Isabella Gavanski (far right) leads her Collaboration Group in discussion at the 2016 Spring Seminar.
Isabella Gavanski (far right) leads her Collaboration Group in discussion at the 2016 Spring Seminar.

There were Collaboration group meetings in between all of the panels where I would have the chance to talk with adults and Youth alike about what we had learned and what we thought about the topics discussed. I had been chosen to lead one of the Collaboration groups, so I was able to facilitate the discussions and make sure everyone had the chance to share with the group if they wanted to. This role made the experience even more interesting and challenging for me. We had some intense conversations about our opinions on some of the panels and it was great hearing what everyone thought and seeing the vast diversity of opinions. It was always really interesting hearing a point of view that differed from my own and I was constantly reflecting upon what exactly I believed and thought about each of the presented subjects.

Another part of the Seminar that I loved was the Unitarian Universalist vibe that was all around me during the week I was there. I will try and describe it to you. There is a certain feeling of respect when you are in a room full of like-minded people. And the atmosphere in a room full of UUs is one of acceptance, friendship, respect and love. Everyone who attended had many chances to make new friends and hear opinions expressed by fellow Youth. I constantly wanted to hug the people around me and plop down on top of my new friends in a cuddle-puddle. I met many Youth at the UU-UNO Spring Seminar who I now consider family and I’m sure I will see many of them again next year.

We also had advisers showing us around New York and helping us through the complicated Metro System which was always a fun time as it was my first visit to the city. But, without a doubt, since I have an interest in UN issues and have attended Model UN conferences at Harvard University, McGill University, and John Abbot College with my high school this year, one of the highlights of my trip had to be sitting in the actual seats at the UN Headquarters!

All in all, my UU-UNO experience was a great one. I made some great friends, learned a lot about Inequality and was able to talk about it all in a meaningful way with the highly curious and intelligent people around me. I would definitely recommend going to the UU-UNO Intergenerational Spring Seminar to anyone who wants to have a fun, yet very educational experience. I will never forget my time at the Spring Seminar, and hope to be able to attend the Seminar again next year.

2016 Spring Seminar Participants at a panel in UN Headquarters.
2016 Spring Seminar Participants at a panel in UN Headquarters.

United Nations Reform: Slow, patient work to make the UN better

Bruce Knotts is Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association United Nations Office. He also serves as Chair of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security and Co-Chair of the NGO Committee on Human Rights.


Bruce Knotts addresses participants at an event at UN Headquarters.
Bruce Knotts, Director of UU-UNO

As President and CEO of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, I also serve on the NGO Security Council Working Group. This working group meets with the ambassadors of those nations currently serving on the UN Security Council and with high ranking officials and missions working on Security Council issues. The most interesting of these meetings are with the member state ambassadors of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group. This group of small and medium sized member states meets at the Swiss mission to the UN to work on improving how the UN Security Council works and increasing transparency in the election of a new UN Secretary General.

In July 2015, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group proposed a “Code of Conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes,” which calls upon all members of the Security Council (both permanent and elected) to not vote against any credible draft resolution intended to prevent or halt mass atrocities.  As of a meeting I had with the ACT Group on March 22, 2016, 111 member states of the United Nations have signed on to this code of conduct.  Canada and the United States are not among those 111 nations. (more…)

Of Trees and Sweeping

Florence Caplow is a Soto Zen priest in the Suzuki Roshi lineage, and a dharma teacher, field botanist, UU seminarian at Iliff School of Theology, essayist, and editor. She was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship in 2015 and is currently on her visit with the Shrine. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Florence reflects on her powerful, moving experiences in Japan.

Day 5 at Tsubaki Grand Shrine (to read about why I’m here, read Entering Another World, my last post). Over the last few days I have been gradually transformed from my usual black-clothed Western self into “staff” at Tsubaki – first a white cotton jacket with the kanji (Chinese characters) for Tsubaki Grand Shrine over my Western clothes, then, yesterday, multi-layered full Shinto robes, all in white, that took a sweet young woman priest, Sakaka-san, about twenty minutes to put on me (today I was on my own, and no one has laughed, so I must have been successful). (more…)

Behind the scenes at COP21

This guest post is by Ahti Tolvanen. Ahti is a UU-UNO Envoy for Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Here he writes about his experience as a participant in the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) international climate change conference in Paris, which took place in December 2015. 


COP21

After the news of the deadly November terrorist attacks in Paris, I was about to cancel my travel plans. This was despite two invitations: one to join Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps at the Climate Summit, the other from a relative who lived in the French capital. She was troubled about how to explain what had happened to her two pre-teen children. I suddenly saw myself as the awkward visitor.

The manhunt was still on for the terrorists involved and public rallies were cancelled by the authorities. The possibilities for networking with other NGOs there seemed diminished and I heard that many people were cancelling their trips.

Then came the message from Stuart Scott, director of United Planet: Faith and Science Initiative. They needed me to research and write media releases for prominent scientists and faith leaders speaking at the Summit. I decided to accept. My years as a journalist put this right up my alley. To refuse, it seemed to me, would be to give in to the terrorists – to open the gates of civilization to barbarians – at a time when it was critical to humanity to have a successful outcome in Paris.

I reconfirmed meetings I had tentatively set up with other contacts including the UUA delegation and friends at the Paris Fellowship, one of the few UUA member groups outside of North America.

Ahti Tolvanen at the le Bourget venue for the COP21 conference.

At the end of the first week of COP21, I flew into Charles de Gaulle airport and once through customs, noticed signs directing me to the trains to the le Bourget conference site. The conference venue was a set of large, prefabricated wooden buildings and an adjoining old airfield hangar. The prefab venue had a temporary appearance about it – like a large circus encampment. I hoped we’d be spared a severe cold spell or windstorm, lest the COP21 be the latest casualty of the climate crisis it was trying to address. (more…)

Unitarian leader takes Equal Marriage stand in Romania

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 8.48.32 AMRev. Dávid Gyero, the Deputy Bishop of the Hungarian Unitarian Church (Churches in Transylvania, Romania and Hungary), has shared his recently issued courageous statement on Equal Marriage.  By way of context, Romania is currently in the midst of a Constitutional struggle that would further exclude LGBT people from Equal Marriage.  We Stand on the Side of Love in faithful solidarity with Rev. Gyero.

For the Dignity of Human Creation: Statement regarding an Amendment to Paragraph 48 of the Romanian Constitution

As it is widely known, there is currently a nationwide effort to collect signatures in support of amending Paragraph 48 of the Romanian Constitution, containing the definition of marriage for the purposes of constitutional law. This initiative, created by the citizens’ organization Coalition for Families, has been an important issue for wide swathes of our society. Several Romanian church leaders have also taken to expressing their views in support of the amendment.

The governing bodies of the Hungarian Unitarian Church have not issued an official statement in this matter. I will therefore express my opinion as an individual, respecting the freedom of opinion of all church members and citizens, but using my opportunity for freedom of speech in this important matter of conscience.

The subject of the constitutional amendment is a proposal to change the definition of marriage contained in the paragraph titled “The Family”, from being the union of two persons to the union of a man and a woman, but the initiative inevitably emphasizes the issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. While the institutions of marriage and family are doubtlessly imbued with moral value as well as significance for our society and community, there are gaping chasms among the various understandings of gender identity and sexual orientation. What some consider sinful, immoral and godless, others consider natural aspects of the divinely created order of the world.

To me, unconditional respect for and protection of the dignity of God’s human creation is a basic theological value. I consider gender identity and sexual orientation to be scientific realities. Living in accordance with one’s gender identity and choosing one’s spouse are basic human rights. In my opinion, if the Church that serves both God and humankind is to be faithful to the Gospel’s teachings of unconditional love and acceptance, it cannot stand behind societal prejudices or discriminate among believers in matters of their human rights. Prejudices create impersonal categories in order to make us forget that behind each label, there are sensitive and honorable human beings, longing for happiness and fulfillment, who are also God’s children.

Like my responsible fellow citizens, I worry about societal phenomena that endanger our ideals of marriage and the lives of families. However, I do not consider minority gender identities or sexual orientations a source of these dangers. The foundation of marriage is mutual love and commitment, and the right to it belongs to every human being.

Dávid Gyerő, Deputy Bishop
Hungarian Unitarian Church
Kolozsvár, February 5, 2016

 

Responding to Requests for International Contributions

In the context of war and violence, mounting injustice, natural disasters and countless other severe challenges around the world, Unitarian and UU leaders in many countries are responding in creative and impactful ways to the issues they face locally.

In recent weeks, requests for financial contributions to support some of these efforts have been received by members of UUA congregations and the response typically reflects a depth of care and generosity that is inspiring.

The response to the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU)’s campaign to support the members of the Unitarian Church in Burundi is an especially vivid example. This generosity has been a great blessing.

Sometimes global Unitarian and UU leaders reach out for support through networks of friends and colleagues – occasionally even through unverifiable email or Facebook messages.

When this happens, we urge individual UUs and congregations to pause and consult with the UUA International Office, the ICUU or the UU Partner Church Council before deciding to send a contribution.

Usually we can help congregations consider important questions about mutual accountability, unintended consequences, and other matters without diminishing the deep caring, commitment to shared justice work, and generous intentions involved.

For further information, please see this memo about “Faithful International Partnering: Proceeding Carefully and Intentionally” from the UUA, UUPCC and ICUU which includes contact information.

February Update on Situation for Burundi Unitarians

Image credit: Amnesty International

Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana, founder and minister of the Unitarian Church in Burundi, has shared the following update on the current situation in Burundi. For further context and background information, read “Making Sense of the Burundi Crisis.”

You are welcome to share this article widely.
Please consider making an online donation to support Burundi Unitarians.

The situation in Burundi remains of concern with widespread violence mostly in Bujumbura but also in rural areas.

 

As a consequence, many deaths are registered and dead bodies are still found on the streets and other people are killed through fighting between armed groups and the police and the Army.

 

A report from Amnesty International stated that mass graves are suspected and many people are buried in those mass graves.

 

The peace and Security Council of the African Union suggested a 5,000 people strong force to protect Burundi civilians and awaited a decision from heads of states. Last weekend, the heads of states and governments didn’t agree to send the troops. There is now a high profile mission to Burundi headed by the current African Union head, the president of Chad, that will visit Burundi as soon as this week.

 

According to news available, the UN general secretary is also expected to visit Burundi in the course of February. All these efforts are aimed at convincing all parties to get to the negotiating table and the government to accept the foreign troops.

 

As far as the Unitarian church is concerned, members are still scattered outside Burundi and shelters have been arranged for people to stay and have basic needs provided. About 17 people are housed in those shelters in addition to some who live in individual rented houses but do get support as needed and appropriate. These shelters are mostly in east African countries.

 

Arrangements are made to support people who remained in Burundi. We are glad to report that the church has remained open throughout these difficult times to the point that no worship service has been cancelled so far and additional measures have been taken to secure the church building and the people who use it.

 

We are praying that the situation gets a peaceful resolution soon and people can go back to their respective homes and jobs as well as thinking about long term solutions.

 

We are grateful to all of you for your support and your constant encouragement.

UUPCC Youth & Young Adult International Opportunities

UUPCC Young Adult Grants for ICUU Conference & Council Meeting 2016

The UU Partner Church Council has set aside funds to provide assist young adult participants (ages 21 – 35) to attend the International Council of Unitarians & Universalists Conference and Council Meeting in July 2016. It is hoped that these funds will make it possible for young adults to join in the important international work of our shared faith.

In the interests of open access and transparency, grants to attend the ICUU Council Meeting and Conference to be held July 2016 in the Netherlands will be determined via an application process.

To be considered for such a grant, a completed application form must be returned to ICUU Young Adult Program leaders by email office@uupcc.org and to arrive no later than 15 March 2016. Download Grant Application (PDF)

Eligibility
Each applicant must be approved by the governing body of their national or regional organization and no more than two such recommendations will be considered from any country. For Canadian and US applicants who function under Congregational Polity you must submit a letter of recommendation from the minister or governing body of a congregation.

Subsidies are given only to people who cannot otherwise afford to attend and an applicant agrees to provide on request any financial or other information that UU Partner Church Youth & Young Adult Initiative Team may need to consider applications.

Criteria
The following factors will be among those considered in making grants:
– Priority is given to delegates and to persons who have not been funded to attend an ICUU event within the last three years
– Priority will be given to young adults who wish to or are developing leadership skills within their faith U/U communities.
– All grant recipients agree to participate fully in the Conference/Council meeting and the Young Adult Program.

Selection
The applications will be considered by the UU Partner Church Youth & Young Adult Initiative Team.

We may not be able to provide grants to applications from all that apply and receipt by UU Partner Church Youth & Young Adult Initiative Team of an application should not be regarded as a commitment or promise to provide a grant. Grants may initially be available for only one participant per country.

Grants
Those whose are subsidised to attend the meeting are expected to arrange for and fund their own visas, if required, and to fund domestic transportation in their own country to the international airport, except in exceptional circumstances. ICUU will provide an international return air ticket to the site of the conference and cover the on-site conference costs for the participant up to the amount of the grant for travel and conference costs.

Grants to include coverage of the following:

Travel Expenses
Philippines/India/Africa Participants 10 total $900 each

European and E. European Participants 10 total $100 each

US and Canada Participants 10 total $300 each

Young Adult Conference Costs:

Philippines/India/Africa Participants 10 total $400 each

European and E. European Participants 10 total $200 each

US and Canada Participants 10 total $100 each

 

International Youth Camp in Transylvania

UUPCC and the Hungarian Unitarian Church are partnering to create an International Youth Camp. It will be designed to serve high school teens who wish to be part of a pilgrimage and mission experience in Transylvania. Youth will journey to sites that are sacred to our religious tradition, and learn why they are still relevant to our modern faith movement. They will also participate in a service-oriented work project in Transylvania to benefit our Partners there. This camp is designed to allow youth groups, as well as individual UU teens who do not have access to a regular Group, to participate in Partnership.

Approximate dates: beginning of August, 2016

Approximate costs: $1500 for airfare, and $1000 dollars per teen for in-country travel, room and meals.

Getting ready: Qualified teens must be attending high school as of September 2016, be available for Zoom/Skype meetings as the year unfolds, and successfully complete a weekend Youth Group “bootcamp” in the Boston area before leaving for Transylvania in August 2016 (where all North American teens will learn to function as a successful Youth Group)

Overseas travel: will include flying into Koloszvár, several pilgrimage sites in and around Kolozsvár, daily Youth Group meetings, time for games, skits, and lots of meals—and a service-oriented stay in a Transylvanian village.

Total travel time including East coast “bootcamp”: 10-12 days

For more information, or to apply, please direct your inquiries to Jennifer Emrich at jemryq@yahoo.com

 

Related

70th Anniversary of the First UN Resolution to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons

Protesters advocate for the elimination of nuclear weaponsOn January 24th, 1946, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed its first resolution, which called for the establishment a commission to monitor nuclear energy around the world, and for the elimination of atomic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. This January 24th, 2016, we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first resolution as we continue to advocate for nuclear disarmament.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has been active in seeking nuclear abolition as a part of its respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and for the interdependent web of life. The UUA released a Statement of Conscience in its 2010 General Assembly stating: “We support international efforts to curtail the vast world trade in armaments and call for nuclear disarmament and abolition of other weapons of mass destruction… In an interdependent world, true peace requires the cooperation of all nations and peoples.” The UUA strongly stands against nuclear proliferation and mobilizes cooperation for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In 2014, a number of representatives from varying faith-based organizations signed the Statement of Conscience Concerning Nuclear Weapons. The statement condemned as “inherently immoral” the enormous loss of life and environmental destruction which the use of nuclear weapons would cause, and called for their elimination.

The devastation a nuclear war would cause could have irreversible effects on humanity and nature to the point of threatening the extinction of the human race. The use of nuclear weapons in a region could ensure the death of millions from burns and radiation poisoning, and provoke a global famine putting billions at risk. A global nuclear war would cause severe climate change due to smoke, soot, and nuclear firestorms resulting in a drastic lowering of the global temperature. It would ultimately leave our planet uninhabitable.

The signatories of the 2014 Statement of Conscience Concerning Nuclear Weapons called for action by the United States Government to abolish nuclear testing, weapons, and nuclear armament, urging government officials, for example, to:

  • Seek the commencement of serious multilateral negotiations, aiming at the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, on a mutual and verifiable basis;
  • Reaffirm support for the Non-proliferation Treaty; and
  • Seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,

The 2014 Statement of Conscience declares that the use of nuclear weapons is inherently immoral because of the “horrific and indiscriminate effects it has on civilians and the environment.” There is no moral justification for the continuation of subjecting people and the planet to this extremity of danger. The obliteration of human life and food resources affected by nuclear weapons makes an indefinite delay morally unacceptable.

Currently, many organizations and bodies affiliated with the United Nations are dedicated to advocating and working for a nuclear-free future, including the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, non-governmental organizations, and committees. Monitoring the Iran Nuclear Deal and North Korea’s nuclear test on January 6th are vital cases in which the United Nations is working to disarm the world of nuclear weapons. On December 7, 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 70/48, “Humanitarian pledge for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons,” with the support of 139 nations.


Learn more:

 

Making Sense of the Burundi Crisis

Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana, founder and minister of the Unitarian Church in Burundi, has prepared an article that will help interested people understand the context and background of the current situation  You are welcome to share this article widely. Donate online to support Burundi Unitarians.

“But as for me and my people, we will work for lasting peace” 

Burundi was a rather organized kingdom until the late 1800s when the Germans came to colonize the country.  Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa lived side by side under the leadership of a king.  The Germans didn’t stay long as they had to leave the country due to the events of WWI.  Belgians took over and ruled the kingdom, operating under the widespread divide et impera principle.  They mostly favored the Tutsi, who they compared to an aristocracy when they arrived; this created resentment in the Hutu population which represents 85% of the population.

The struggle for independence was fought by both Tutsi and Hutu under the leadership of the Prince Louis Rwagasore, but immediately after the independence, on July 1st 1962, tensions arose. At independence, Burundi became a constitutional monarchy.   The prince was killed in 1961. Afterwards, the government included both Tutsi and Hutu with a Hutu prime minister.  The prime minister was killed by a Tutsi gunman and the king appointed a Tutsi prime minister.  The Hutu were angry that they were not represented enough in the government and attempted a coup in 1965 against the King.  The 34 officers responsible for the coup were executed and this led the king to flee the kingdom, leaving behind his 18 year old son.  In July 1966, the prince deposed his absent father and became Burundi’s new king.  In November, the Tutsi prime minister deposed the young king and Burundi became a republic with Michel Micombero as President.

The tensions didn’t stop, on the contrary. In 1972, there were uprisings in some areas of the country, especially in the southern and the central provinces.  Tutsi families were killed and others were threatened. The government responded with a brutal repression; many Hutu were killed and almost all the educated Hutu were killed or had to flee the country, mostly towards Tanzania.  My brother once told me that his Hutu elementary school teacher, who was liked by everyone, was taken from the classroom while teaching!  Thousands of Hutu fled the country and the government distributed or sold their houses to Tutsi, especially those in the administration.

 

A history of coup d’Etat and violence

Beginning with the coup in 1966, there was coup d’état roughly every 10 years.  The second one was in 1976, led by Jean Baptiste Bagaza who continued the same policies as his predecessor when it came to power sharing; Tutsi had the lion’s share.  In education, it was close to impossible for a Hutu to move from primary to secondary school; good schools were concentrated in Bujumbura, the provincial towns, and the southern provinces dominated by Tutsi.

The third military coup in 1987 brought a shift in perspective vis-à-vis the ethnic question.  Education was now open to everyone, and Hutu youth flooded the education system from secondary to university. There was open discussion about the Hutu and Tutsi issues and this led to a Unity Charter in 1992: Hutu and Tutsi accepted through referendum that they would live together, have equal access to resources, and call refugees to return home.  I want to clarify that the Tutsi, still in the minority, held power/government positions under the 1st and the 2nd republic.

The democratic wind of the 1990s was blowing over Africa and hovering over Burundi as well.   There was a clear openness in the political space and many refugees started to come back home; educated Hutu came to take part in the elections. Multi-party democracy was accepted and elections were organized in 1993.  As expected, a Hutu won the election because of the rule of the numbers .The Tutsi were frightened: they didn’t know what to expect and feared vengeance, killing, and conflict over land ownership after years of not so good governance.

The newly elected president was killed by the Tutsi dominated army only after 3 months in office. After the death of the president, the Hutu in many villages around the country killed their Tutsi neighbors; 50,000 Tutsi were killed in only a few days. The Hutu elite were shocked: some stayed and continued the political struggle, and some went on to start a rebel movement.  There was a transitional government led by the then speaker of the parliament.  There was fighting between the army and the rebel movement and chaos spread around the country.  The rebel movement was to fight the Tutsi dominated army that was allegedly responsible of killing the Hutu president.  No independent investigation has been done to date.

In 1996, another coup d’état was carried out by the president responsible of the 1987 coup, Pierre Buyoya, who had made great contributions towards Hutu and Tutsi living together. He deposed the former speaker of the parliament.  This was a decisive moment in our history.

The new president, President Buyoya Pierre, with the help of the respected former Tanzanian president, Mwalimu Nyerere, US president Jimmy Carter, and Nelson Mandela, started peace talks between all the active forces in the country: the political parties from sides (Hutu and Tutsi), religious leaders, and civil society organizations, rebel groups.  After 4 years of negotiations, Tutsi and Hutu reached an agreement about the future.  A final document, called “Arusha Peace Deal for Peace and Reconciliation,” was signed by over 20 interest groups.  This peace deal paved the way for a new way of looking at one another, a way of solving problems, and a way of sharing resources and power.

The Arusha deal says that each of the two major ethnic groups must make up 50% of the army, all the appointed positions from the administration must be filled 40% Tutsi and 60% Hutu, and all the political parties with more than 4% of votes during general elections have to be part of the government. The same Arusha peace deal says that NO president in Burundi can run for more than 10 years or two terms. Arusha gave birth to the current constitution, which also stipulates term limits for the president (two five-year terms are permitted), as well as the way presidents are elected. The controversy is about how the president got elected for his first term, not by the people directly but by the MPs.  He doesn’t want to count that term as a “Term”.

 

 And here is the key to understanding the current situation.  The ruling party decided that the current president can run for a third term, in violation of the Arusha peace deal and the constitution that stipulates 2 terms, no more.

People were afraid that if the president is allowed to run, the country will face the kind of injustice that people suffered pre-2000, before Arusha; there is no peace without justice.  People think that the demons of 50 years ago are coming back to haunt them. Almost every family in Burundi lost some one during the recent civil war and during different repressions by different regimes, and many had to flee either their home or the country.

The demonstrators and now the people contesting the regime in Bujumbura are fighting against more than the 3rd term; they are demonstrating on behalf of lasting peace and true justice and stability in the country.

This was the first time in Burundi’s history when Burundians from different political parties and from all ethnic groups were meeting on the streets with one goal: to save peace by nurturing justice.  The foundation, on which the country stood for the last 15 years, since Arusha was signed, is being threatened. This is the reason why voices from within the country (including political parties, civil society organizations, churches) and from outside the country (including Belgium, with which we have strong ties for obvious reasons as a former colonial power, the European Union, the USA, the UN Secretary General and Security Council) are united in calling for the president not to run for a third 5-year term.  He used the legal system that he controls to validate his term and held elections contested by the opposition and the international community.

A chance for peace was missed and …

The president persisted and refused to step aside as stipulated by the constitution and the Arusha deal. As I write this note, over 500 people have been killed( some unofficial figures talk about 1000), 6000 are in jail and 220,000 fled the country for their safety and are in Rwanda, DR Congo, Tanzania and Uganda and other places.

The action of police and the ruling party youth wing have been bloody towards those opposing the status quo.

Are the Ethnic demons back with the current crisis?

The people who are calling for calm are from all ethnic groups (Hutu and Twa) and this can be seen within the victims of the police atrocities, people in jail and those in refugee camps in different neighboring countries.

The struggle to protect the Arusha peace deal and the current constitution is also done through a platform “ CENARED” (Le Conseil National pour le respect de l’Accord d’Arusha pour la Paix et la Réconciliation au Burundi et la Restauration d’un Etat de Droit.) which is  led by Hutu and has Tutsi members.

The ethnic may be brought back by a ruling party rhetoric calling the struggle an attempt by Tutsi leaders to come back to power, but it is clearly very hard to convince that the struggle is a one ethnic group show.

 A Logic of war

Over the recent decades, Burundi, as a country is unfortunately developing a culture of violence.  We are losing the long held and respected tradition of wise men bringing parties together and help find an amicable solution to problems.  Burundi and particularly Bujumbura (Capital City) has become a battle ground between the police and the young armed people.  The capital city has become also a killing ground for people suspected to be sympathetic to the people fighting the police by not giving information about them.  This logic and vicious circle need to be reversed by  a logic of peace.

 

The need for a Logic of peace

It is clear that the sustainable path to peace is dialogue between people and groups who want to build a peaceful Burundi where there is room for everyone, human rights are respected and positive values promoted.  Should we include the people responsible for wrong doing both now and in the past?  That is the question the people in peace talks recently inaugurated in Uganda and due to continue in Arusha, Tanzania will have to respond.

 

The Unitarian Church of Burundi has been playing and wants to play a role in this logic.  The church is committed to continue the work begun for several years now of promoting the values of tolerance and diversity, to work on the root causes of the divisions in Burundi that have been  exclusion and using violence as a means to solve problems.  We want to influence a paradigm change in the way problems are looked at and people live together and share their common destiny.

Our values may be not appealing for the immediate interests of the ruling class but we will continue to uphold and promote them.   And despite the difficult conditions, we are committed to keep our doors and our hearts open.

 

Is there any hope?

I recall the song by Carolyn Mcdade “… And I will bring you hope when hope is hard to find ….a rose in the winter time”.   Looking at the situation; social, economic, ethical,….it is really to find hope.

But, Hope is permitted because there are people in Burundi who refuse the status quo, who want change and who, in many small ways, are working for it to happen.   I know of lawyers who risk their lives defending people unfairly arrested and jailed, I see people who visit prisoners and offer a presence, I am aware of nurses and doctors who go to their work every day even when roads are blocked and the possibility of being arrested and killed is real. All these are brave signs of resistance to the status quo and they will eventually bring peace and harmony.

Hope is permitted because Burundians are not alone in this struggle.  We are part of the human family.  Individuals and institutions around the world are not only wishing but working to make this happen.  How many letters have been written, how many prayers have been said, how many petitions have been sent, how much money has been raised so that things change for the better?

Hope is permitted because organizations at regional, continental and global level have been calling both parties to find a solution and for the government to play its role.  Pressures have mounted upon the government for accountability and refrain.

Things may look gloomy and indeed they are, some people may be brutal and they really are.  But there are thousands others working for change in many different ways and the mystery will slowly unveil one day.

As for me and my congregation, we will work to build lasting peace.

Prepared by Rev. Ndagijimana Fulgence

Further donations will be need to the meet the ongoing needs of Burundians in exile. Please continue to support the ICUU Burundi Appeal. You can donate online via credit card or PayPal.