The President of the Republic of Burundi in Africa, where more than 200,000 people died during civil war, visited the peaceline in west Belfast during a four-day visit to Northern Ireland.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Burundi borders Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It 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.
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. Now an active Christian, he visited Northern Ireland as a guest of the Northern Ireland administration. The President’s visit originated with an invitation given by Fields of Life. The Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel Project, and Fields of Life were closely involved in developing the programme for his trip.
The Revd Earl Storey, director of the Hard Gospel project, said: “The President is very openly committed to meeting two challenges in Burundi – reconciliation and deep social need. These two challenges cannot be separated.
“There are many parallels between the conflict here and in Burundi. We want to learn how a country that experienced such a massive death toll amidst desperate need has travelled so far down a road of reconciliation.”
The Director went on: “In Northern Ireland reconciliation is the core challenge for us. Sometimes we smother the word ‘reconciliation’ in other terms. Yet it is the key challenge we face. We have an unprecedented opportunity to break a historic cycle of division – one that has bred violence on both sides. Churches have a major responsibility as our core message is reconciliation.”
The President fulfilled a wide range of engagements including a visit to Stormont, meeting with First Minister Ian Paisley and Minister Gerry Kelly. He also met with the Vice Chancellor and senior academics at the University of Ulster. He talked of the challenges facing Burundi and heard of the work of INCORE and the UNESCO School. Both of these departments concentrate on international dimensions to peacebuilding and education.
As part of his visit President Pierre Nkurunziza fulfilled a range of engagements for Fields of Life. He also visited the Forthspring Inter-Community Centre on the Springfield Road in west Belfast. While there, he was asked to address an invited audience about the challenges involved in trying to achieve post conflict reconciliation.
One of the President’s final engagements was to meet the leaders of Northern Ireland’s four main churches in Armagh. The Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Alan Harper and his Catholic counterpart, Cardinal Sean Brady, spoke about the challenges facing the churches here in dealing with reconciliation.