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Burundi Gears Up for Constitutional Referendum

FILE - Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks at the start of a campaign for a May 17 referendum on constitutional change. It could enable the president to retain power for another 16 years.

Burundians gathered in churches Sunday to pray for peace as the country prepares for a controversial referendum Thursday that could extend the president's term in office by as much as 16 years. The Catholic Church has said it will fight to protect the country's democratic gains after its request to postpone referendum vote was denied.

Leonard Nijimbere is among hundreds of Burundians who attended a Sunday church service. “Today in the church, we were taught how to love and live with other people in harmony,” the 28-year-old Catholic said.

According to multiple churchgoers, no politics was discussed in the church that is in the center of this capital city.

The Catholic Church has come out against President Pierre Nkurunziza government's plan to change the constitution.

The head of the Conference Catholic Bishops of Burundi, Joachim Ntahondereye, said the conference would fight to protect democracy.

“Somehow, now we are facing a setback," he said. "... We have to work for that the future to be better. That’s why we are calling on the people to safeguard peace and unity and to engage themselves for a better democracy in the future.”

Some of the issues Burundians will consider in the referendum vote will be whether to allow the president to seek re-election twice more. That would keep him in office until 2034.

FILE - Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza arrives for an independence day celebration in Bujumbura, July 1, 2017.
FILE - Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza arrives for an independence day celebration in Bujumbura, July 1, 2017.

The current term is five years, but the new amendment would give the president a seven-year mandate. The constitution limits the president to two terms, but it is argued that the change would reset the clock for Nkrunziza to run twice more.

Nijimbere, a student at a local university, said he plans to vote. "Nothing is going to stop me from voting. When that day comes I know the choice I am going to make.”

Nijimbire lives in the opposition neighborhood, which has been campaigning against the constitutional changes.

One registered voter who refused to give his name spoke to VOA about the referendum.

“I will vote despite fear for my well-being. When I walk in the street and they ask whether I voted I will show them that I have voted but I don’t like to vote,” he said.

The voter spoke of threats and intimidation presented by the ruling party youth wing known as Imbonerakure.

Human rights agencies have accused Imbonerakure of killings, arrests and attacks on opponents in the run up to the Thursday’s vote.

At least 1,200 people have lost their lives since Nkrunziza announced his bid for a third term in office in 2015, and more than 400,000 Burundians have fled the country.