The Seventh Day Adventist Church has accused the Burundi government of "harassment", saying that two of its local leaders and 21 others had been arrested in recent weeks.
"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," the church's United States-based president Ted Wilson said in a statement this week.
He said that on Friday last week, the president of the Burundi chapter of the church Pastor Lamec Barishinga and local field president Pastor Lambert had been detained - after the arrests of 21 other church members since early May.
The two leaders were detained after Bujumbura refused the church's attempts to fire Barishinga's predecessor who is close to the government, a local pastor told AFP late Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
"It is to put pressure on them," the source said.
Joseph Ndikubwayo was fired in November 2018, accused of embezzling church funds and also accepting a role with a government organ, "which fundamentally contradicts church doctrine", according to another pastor, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye refused to accept the nomination of a new head, citing "problems at the church" caused by the choice of a "contested" leader.
Instead, he decided to extend Ndikubwayo's term until an election could be held to replace him.
In a letter to Wilson sent in April and seen by AFP, Barandagiye said that in the absence of a cooperation agreement between the Adventist church and the government of Burundi, the local church must "conform to national law".
Burundi plunged into crisis when President Pierre Nkurunziza sought in April 2015 a fiercely-contested third term in office.
Violence claimed at least 1,200 lives and displaced more than 400,000 people between April 2015 and May 2017, according to estimates by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has opened an investigation.
Since then, the government has clamped down on the media and adopted strict laws to tighten control on associations and local churches.
The Adventist church counts around 150,000 members in Burundi and is one of the oldest in the country.
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