The constitution establishes a secular state; prohibits religious discrimination; recognizes freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; and provides for equal protection under the law regardless of religion. These rights may be limited by law in the general interest or to protect the rights of others, and may not be abused to compromise national unity, independence, peace, democracy, or the secular nature of the state, or to violate the constitution. The constitution prohibits political parties from preaching religious violence, exclusion, or hate.
The government recognizes and registers religious groups through the law covering nonprofit organizations, which states these organizations must register with the Ministry of Interior. There is a 20,000 Burundian franc ($11) fee for registration. Each religious group must provide the denomination or affiliation of the institution, a copy of its bylaws, the address of its headquarters in the country, an address abroad if the local institution is part of a larger group, and the names and addresses of the association’s governing body and legal representative. Registration also entails identifying any property and bank accounts owned by the religious group. The ministry usually processes registration requests within two to four weeks. Leaders of religious groups who fail to comply or who practice in spite of denial of their registration are subject to six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.
The law regulating religious groups also incorporates specific requirements for religious denominations seeking registration. Any new religious congregation must have a minimum of 500 members if initiated by a citizen and 1,000 members if initiated by a foreigner. It prohibits membership in more than one religious group at the same time.
The law does not grant general tax exemptions or other benefits to religious groups, with certain exceptions. Some religious and nonreligious schools have agreements with the government entitling them to tax exemptions when investing in infrastructure or purchasing school equipment and educational materials.
The official curriculum includes religion and morality classes for all secondary and primary schools. The program offers religious instruction for Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, although all classes may not be available if the number of students interested is insufficient in a particular school. Students are free to choose from one of these three religion classes or attend morality classes instead.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Human Rights Watch reported the March 14 death of Simon Bizimana following his arrest and alleged physical mistreatment during a month-long detention in prison in Cankuzo Province for refusing to register as a voter, which is not a crime under federal law, ahead of the country’s May constitutional referendum. A video of a local official questioning Bizimana prior to his arrest, during which he stated he would not participate in elections due to reasons of religious conscience, circulated widely on social media. Bizimana was a member of a small Christian fellowship group. A hospital certificate stated the cause of death was malaria, but witness accounts alleged his condition had been worsened by beatings with iron rods inflicted by police.
The Ministry of the Interior sometimes denied requests for registration from religious groups but did not make information available on the applicants who were refused or the reasons for refusal. In May the minister of interior held a meeting with the leaders of religious groups to remind them that any group that did not comply with the law’s provisions for registration could be subject to suspension.
In April approximately 2,500 followers of Eusebie Ngendakumana, aka Zebiya, returned to the country after seeking asylum first in the DRC and later in Rwanda. The members of the group departed the country in 2013 and 2014 following violent clashes with government security services and prosecutions of some members. Representatives of the group stated they had not sought accreditation as a religious denomination because they viewed themselves as members of the Catholic Church, leading to scrutiny from the government and the closure of the group’s shrine in Kayanza Province. The group primarily took refuge in the DRC but traveled from the DRC to Rwanda in March after refusing to comply with the requirements of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for biometric registration, which they stated they considered contrary to their beliefs. They similarly objected to registration requirements, vaccination requirements, and processed food rations in Rwanda, leading to the arrest of approximately 30 members and their subsequent decision to return to the country in April. Once back in the country, the government provided the group transportation to their home communes. There were subsequent reports that some members of the group faced scrutiny from government and ruling party officials. There were no reports of arrests or harassment as of the end of the year; a representative of the group stated that members had faced no significant harassment since their return, while articulating concern that the group continued to have no access to the Kayanza shrine. Ngendakumana reportedly remained in exile as of the end of the year.
President Pierre Nkurunziza routinely employed religious rhetoric in the context of political speeches and invoked divine guidance for political decisions. The government continued a campaign launched in 2017 promoting the “moralization of [Burundian] society.” The president conducted events in provinces around the country attended by invited groups including government officials, ruling party members, religious leaders, and other local notables. During the events, which were not recorded or open to media and during which participants were not allowed to take notes, he gave lengthy addresses highlighting a mix of religious, historical, and cultural themes. The president also continued efforts begun in 2017, and connected rhetorically to the “moralization” campaign and invoking religious appeals, to require unmarried cohabitating couples to formalize their relationships as marriages.
National Assembly President Pascal Nyabenda participated in a ceremony in September to welcome 60 Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. First Lady Denise Nkurunziza, herself pastor of a church, organized a workshop with religious leaders to increase their involvement in fighting against mother-to-child HIV transmission. In August she organized a Christian prayer crusade in Kayanza Province, which government officials, ruling party members, and religious leaders attended.
During the year, the Ministry of the Interior appointed 11 members of a new religious monitoring body, of whom eight were religious leaders, including the president and vice president of the committee. The committee included one Muslim representative, six representatives from Protestant denominations, and one Catholic representative, who resigned and was not replaced during the year. The ministry announced the establishment of the new religious monitoring body in 2017, stating its purpose was to “monitor, regulate, and settle” inter- and intradenominational disputes and to ensure that religious organizations operated according to law. The committee was also charged with tracking what were termed subversive or inflammatory teachings. The committee reported extensive efforts to promote dialogue among and within religious denominations during the year.
The government continued to grant benefits, such as tax waivers, to religious groups for the acquisition of materials to manage development projects. According to the Burundi Revenue Authority, the government also granted tax waivers to religious denominations for the import of religious materials such as printed materials, wines for masses, and equipment to produce communion wafers.