At 5am on April 30, 1997, rebels attacked the minor seminary of Buta in the Diocese of Bururi and ordered those inside to separate along ethnic lines. A civil war had raged in the country since 1993, pitting the Tutsi minority against the Hutu majority. The seminary had refused to be drawn into the strife and the seminarians now rejected the rebels’ order.
Fr Nicolas Niyungeko, rector of the Sanctuary of Buta, built in the seminarians’ honour, recalled: “Their evil scheme having failed, the killers rushed on the children and slaughtered them with rifles and grenades. At that point, some of the seminarians were heard singing psalms of praise and others were saying ‘Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do’. Others, instead of fighting or trying to run away, preferred helping their distressed brothers, knowing exactly what was going to happen to them.”
The 40 young people who died that day may be among the first canonised saints in the history of Burundi, a small, poor, landlocked country in Central Africa. The remote and mountainous country, known as “the Switzerland of Africa”, has a population of 11 million, 62 per cent of whom are Catholic. Catholicism arrived in the nation when it fell under Belgian rule in 1916. But although the faith has thrived for more than a century in Burundi it has so far not produced a single officially recognised saint.
That could soon change. The Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes has approved the opening of an investigation into the 40 seminarians, as well as four other Causes: those of two missionary priests, a lay volunteer and a local priest.
The two missionaries and the lay volunteer – all Italians – served together at a mission in Buyengero. Fr Ottorino Maule, 53, and Fr Aldo Marchiol, 65, both Xaverian Missionary priests, and Catina Gubert, 74, were killed on September 30, 1995. An account of their deaths said that neighbouring nuns heard gunshots around 7pm, but did not think it was anything serious. “On Sunday morning,” the account said, “since they had not seen the Fathers for Mass, they decided to go to the mission, where they found the three bodies in the living room. It was a real execution: the missionaries had been killed with a blow to the head. Only Catina had been killed with a blow to the chest. Nothing in the house had been touched or stolen.”
The remaining Cause is that of Fr Michel Kayoya, 38, who was killed in Gitega on May 17, 1972. “He was a priest, poet and philosopher,” an official Church biography reads. “Through his publications he always emphasised that ethnic differences, more than being a threat, are a wealth, and a mutual gift. He was charismatic figure, a lover of truth who preached love without ever separating it from justice.”
Fr Kayoya was killed during a surge in ethnic violence. In 1972, an estimated 100,000 people, mainly Hutu, were killed by the Tutsi regime in what the International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi has described as a genocide. The priest was executed alongside 50 others imprisoned by the government. A witness reported: “Before the execution, Fr Kayoya sang the Magnificat and spoke words of forgiveness to those who were about to kill him. The soldiers who shot him were crying.”
Burundi’s bishops officially launched the Causes at a Mass on June 21. In a statement, they said: “These brothers and this sister in Christ are the heroes that we, the bishops of Burundi, present to you as a single model that inspires love for fraternity. They represent the first group of probable martyrs that we present to the universal Church, to be officially declared martyrs and are for us all models of fraternity
in Christian life and also in our whole Burundian society.”