My missionary struggle began with the blessing of the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria Theodore four years ago in the Diocese of Burundi and Rwanda, these two long-suffering countries of East Africa. Our main concern has been to heal the wounds or rather the deep scars left by the fratricidal war, which lasted nineteen whole years and ended relatively recently, in 2006. We want to teach them love by treating them with love. Healing, giving love: words that are easy to say or good to hear, but very difficult to put into practice. In addition to the wounds, poverty, privation, the difficult conditions in which these poor people have to live without even elementary medical care, without organized education, make them unable to overcome these problems by themselves and look upon us as their support and spiritual prop. They thirst to experience Orthodoxy, to be baptized and regenerated. As for us, we cannot say “no” to them. There are plenty of objective difficulties that we are confronted with. For example, our moving from place to place is not easy at all. This has become even more difficult over the last year after an accident on a rough road of our Diocese, which resulted in the destruction of the old car that served us. Now we are examining the solution of the motorcycle, but I do not know if this solution could be implemented because its price is still prohibitive for our meager means. However, we are not disappointed and despite all the difficulties that arise, we always find a way to visit our brothers, baptize them and establish parishes and Christian communities.
In Rwanda in particular, we have fourteen parish communities, four of which are very well-off given the conditions there, and number five hundred members each. Unfortunately, there are only four priests, who have to go around the whole country. One can easily understand that they are definitely not enough. In addition, there are no churches. People’s worship needs are served in the countryside, under the trees, the African baobabs, which also serve the children’s learning needs, since they fill the gap caused by lack of schools.
People of faith, readers and catechists have undertaken the difficult task of catechism, which precedes baptism. Also, their help is valuable in our effort to translate ecclesiastical books into the local dialects. We already have the translations of the sacraments of the Divine Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil and that of the Presanctified Gifts , the Great Supplication (Paraklesis) and the Akathist Hymn, the Services of the Pentecost and the Epiphany as well as some occasional benedictions. We consider this work a great blessing of God, which fills the souls of the newly illumined with joy and happiness and encourages us to continue our struggle and try to imitate the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius.
As far as our missionary work in Burundi is concerned, it is generally the same as in Rwanda. Here we have eight parish communities and two deacons. Naturally, our moving from one parish to another is as difficult as that of the faithful. Therefore we consider church construction necessary for meeting the believers’ spiritual needs. One more dream which, up to a point, is about to be realized thanks to the kind hearted donations of anonymous brothers, is the operation of Middle and High School, the only one in Buramata region. We believe that by September we will have been able to raise the necessary amount for flooring, window frames, doors, plastering, the purchase of desks and other furniture and equipment that is necessary for the whole school process. Most indigenous children come from single-parent families, with the mother playing a dual role-that of the father too, struggling to make ends meet without any help from anywhere. Poor people, beaten by life and fate, who look upon us as their sole support .We try not to disappoint them, but at the same time we are careful to be sparing of our words and promise them every time what is feasible to be done. Arousing false hopes and expectations- especially in such poor creatures- is equivalent to frustration, which is something none of us wants, otherwise this whole effort could have disappointing results or be totally wasted.
Once again I greet you in the name of the Triune God. Lovingly I ask you to accept my humble thanks for your support to the missionary work that I was entrusted with by our beloved spiritual father, the Pope and Patriarch Theodore II.
Our mission and vision is to spread the light of Orthodoxy in Burundi and Rwanda, where it seems to have a bright future. The love, hospitality and education I received from you, Greek people, while I studied there, these are the things I strive to give. Our main activity is the dissemination of the Orthodox faith that is the only true faith. There are many challenges, since we are obliged, required and requested to respond to the thirsty souls in the various sectors of society.
Education is the key to deal with and tackle problems, such as poverty and ignorance. In one place, we have the only primary school in the region with over 600 children, who walk more than 5 kilometers daily, while most of them totally lack basic equipment, such as pencils, pens and copybooks, although the education we offer to them is free, because their parents are unable to provide for them and because most children are orphans. Occasionally we try to give them some lunch, because most of them come very early in the morning without having eaten breakfast, or even without having had food the night before. In every class we have 100 pupils. At times we have to cut a pencil in three pieces, so that every students has something to write with.
The government asked us to build a secondary school in this region, because for these students, when they get out of the primary, it means the end of their studies; there is no middle school in that place. We laid the foundation stone for the new school, which will be dedicated to Saint Paisios the newly canonized saint. Our prayer is to be able to complete the school, because the education of the young people is the future for our Church and the whole country.
Although we have baptized many people, we continue to worship and have our services under the trees, in tents, in rented houses and in the countryside. Please, keep us in your incessant prayers, so that we’ll be able to keep the candle of Orthodoxy burning.
For exactly two years, by the Grace of God and the blessings of His Beatitude Theodore II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, I have been serving the martyred Diocese of Burundi and Rwanda, which came into existence just a few years ago. Thus I will presume upon your love and patience in order to make a brief review of the management of your loving contributions during these two years of my ministry. Besides, it is proper that you should know where your money goes, which goals we have achieved, which we have missed as well as our plans for the future… I consider it necessary and honorable to make this accountability, so to speak, report.
As you all know, not so long ago Burundi and Rwanda came out of a fratricidal war, which resulted in genocide -in just 100 days one million people were massacred, among them innocent children; this marked the last decade of the 20th century and proved beyond the slightest doubt that “man is a wolf to man”. The war memorial museums in Rwanda bear undeniable witness to that. It is there that one wonders how man can be led to acts of brutality when driven by hatred, power lust, conflicting interests and personal ambitions.
It is such people that we minister to and try to comfort, alleviate their suffering and uplift their spirit. Like all wars, this war ended at some point as well, giving peace a chance. It is then that our role started.
There are numerous needs to meet, spiritual as well as material. The visible physical wounds have healed, but there are wounds that are unseen, the wounds and scars of the soul, which are really very hard to erase. Our efforts are focused on making these poor creatures feel again that they are human beings and on helping them to live.
In Burundi, 40 kilometers northeast of Bujumbura, there is a vibrant Christian community of war refugees, rallied around the sacred church of Saint Alexius and the Twelve Apostles. These people, deprived of basic essentials, show an unparalleled will to survive. Last summer, we ordained as a priest the director of the school community; this way, we provided a solution to the problem of the priest there.
Another intractable for the time being problem pertains to education. As many as 700 children are literally crammed into the five classrooms of the primary school. There is an urgent need to add at least four classrooms, but the construction costs in both Burundi and Rwanda are extremely high due to the transportation costs from neighboring countries, as everything is imported. As for a secondary school, things are equally disappointing. The nearest middle school is 10 km away, distance which the few children that attend it have to cover on foot.
It is on foot as well that the sick have to go in order to reach the nearest “health station”, so to say. Also, the little students, before setting out for their school, have to walk 5 kilometers in order to fetch water for home -this is their own task – from the nearest borehole.
Both Burundi and Rwanda – even more in Rwanda – embraced Orthodoxy with great love. Seeking to explain the reason and without claiming infallibility, I concluded that this is due to the fact that our Mission is relatively new in the sense that it made its presence noticeable after the war, therefore, we are, in a way, incorruptible. Each of our pastoral journeys is for them an event of great importance, which is why they give us a warm and hearty welcome. Simple-hearted people, most of them without any special education -and this is only naturally expected, since the war was a catalyst for the evolution of life thereof. However, despite their simple-heartedness, their questions about the teachings of our Church, its Mysteries, its holy figures and religious traditions are anything but simplistic.
I would also like to refer to the role of the state as regards the operation of the Orthodox Church and not only. The Missions operate under the watchful eye of the state, which intervenes even in the selection of the building that houses us. According to the country’s Constitution, we are obliged to submit the beliefs of our Orthodox faith, the doctrinal truths of the Gospel as well as the charter of operation. If approved, we are granted a temporary permit for one year, extendable indefinitely. We expect to get ours in the August of the current year because we have work to present.
Specifically, we have founded eight parish communities in Rwanda, we have performed four priestly ordinations and we have sent six young Rwandans to the Makarios III Theological Seminary in Nairobi, Kenya, to be ordained after their graduation. After catechesis, we have baptized about six hundred Rwandans, while there are many more waiting to be baptized. Please note that all rites are performed outdoors, since we lack sacred churches. Also, the state gives special importance to social policy, which is why it works closely with us in the pursuit of social policy.
In general, the same applies to both countries with the following difference: In Burundi, the government gives us free land, provided we construct schools, churches and health stations. Indeed, we have already been granted two building plots, and we are trying to get the title deeds and find sponsors to promote the projects. Unlike Burundi, in Rwanda everything is sold at high prices.
In order not to inconvenience you any further, summing up, I will remind you that we have neither an episcopal residence, nor spaces for confession, catechesis and hosting friends-volunteers, who visit us from time to time. Some work is still in progress mainly due to shortage of money but also because of some legal obstacles, which we will hopefully overcome.
A particular problem is that of our moving around within the country as well as our transition from one country to another. Our car was damaged in a traffic accident. As a result, it is not uncommon for us to get stuck on the road and go on our pastoral visits by means of public transport, which is not at all frequent and makes us waste valuable time.
In closing, I would like once more to appeal to your love and your charity feelings, which evidently characterize you: Pray for us, become our companions, help us to teach the creatures of God that we have been ministering to for two years to recognize the miracles, that is, the essence of LIFE, to teach them that LIFE is a gift of God to us and that the way they will live their lives is their own gift to God. Let’s make, then, all of us, this gift as wonderful as possible…
When a child is born into the world, everybody leans affectionately over it with an abundance of love and care and wants to know everything about it. We feel that our brothers from Greece care the same way about the relatively early steps taken by the Orthodox Church in Rwanda and Burundi. For this reason, we would like to make you partakers of the rich blessings of His grace which we have experienced lately, mainly through our participation in the sacraments of our Church. Thanks to the prayers and the actual assistance from Greece, we had the opportunity to live a particularly blessed summer with not only a large number of newly illumined Christians but also with the presence of fellow travellers all along the way. We started with the well-known doctor Mr. Antonis Liaskos, who undertook the task of catechism at Kazimpa in Rwanda, where people have demonstrated a strong thirst for Orthodoxy; that is why for a long time they were asking us most insistently to teach them our faith. Later a blessed group of young people from St Dimitris Loubardiaris parish arrived here, accompanied by Fr. Michael. Immediately after that we welcomed Mrs. Georgia Hatzivei, President of the NGO “Anthropoi Agapis” (People of Love), who was visiting Burundi for the fourth time, offering great help and unfailing love. At the same time, we welcomed the first volunteers of the “Contribution to Educating Africa’s Children” society, who have developed educational activities in Metropolises as Madagascar and Uganda.
Initially our guests met with the community of catechumens in Kazimba and marveled at the fact that impoverished people had already organized themselves into groups focusing on the Orthodox faith and aiming to develop activities in order to support their families and their future Orthodox Church. All this takes place in a quite big hut, but we want to believe that with God’s help this hut will be replaced by the first Orthodox sacred church in Rwanda, which will cost around 100,000 euros. Still, these people, who are characterized by an unprecedented zeal for our faith, wish to have the first Orthodox Kindergarten in Rwanda, which will embrace all the orphans and poor children in the region free of charge and lay strong educational foundations from an early age. The cost of construction and operation is estimated at around 10,000 euros.
Before leaving for Burundi with the volunteers, we showed them around the Museum of Genocide of 1994, where we saw with pain of soul the atrocities that took place a few years ago, leaving numerous open wounds. In this traumatized society, we are certain that Orthodoxy can comfort and give hope to all people, unlike many other denominations which unfortunately took part in the bloody cycle of hatred by driving people away from the love of Christ.
On arriving in Bujumbura, capital of Burundi, volunteers of the “Contribution” society immediately began preparing for the Orthodox camp on the hill of Buramata. It is a village which became a shelter for all the people that were uprooted from their homes because of the genocide and the civil war. Although the government gave this rudimentary shelter, it failed to provide a piece of land or even a water supply. As a result, people can only find food for their children every second or third day. In this location a six-grade elementary school has been built, and we do everything in our power to provide the school children with access to clean drinking water so that they will not have to walk long distances every day carrying jerry cans on their heads. Father Nektarios, who has only recently been ordained to the priesthood, is the headmaster of this school. Besides the school, we also have the imposing presence of the Sacred Church of Saint Alexios the Man of God, which is filled with the beautiful voices of the people attending every church service.
This place, though so poor in material goods and stimuli, was filled with life and joy of Christ during the camping period that was organized by the “Contribution”. The person in charge, Irene Papahatzis, wrote about it: “From the very first moment we were surrounded by hundreds of happy children who were shouting joyfully for our coming and were trying to catch our hands in order to greet us. Immediately we realized that choosing some children only for the camp was not possible, that is why we handed out applications for all the children of the village, who were more than 550!! Fortunately we were helped considerably by the 32 group leaders who were offered the standard two- day training and conduced to shaping the program. Equally valuable was the help on the part of the priests who were constantly by our side and with lots of enthusiasm encouraged young and old to participate with love in Christ in all camp activities. Every day was full of joy.” Apart from organizing this camp, the volunteers of the “Contribution” handed out school supplies to all children and offered scholarships to all graduates who were promoted to middle school, and are now required to pay tuition fees. We also asked them, if they could, to sponsor the scholarships of the children who want to go to university, and they told us that they were looking for people in Greece who would like to take on some of these scholarships.
The highlight of August for our local Church in Burundi was nothing else but the festive celebration in our cathedral church, dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This great Marian feast was celebrated together with our Orthodox brothers who had come from Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, Tanzania and Greece. On the same day, during the solemn Divine Liturgy, the entire congregation shouted out “Worthy” twice. First for father Nektarios, who was ordained a priest, and then for father Panagiotis, who was ordained a deacon. The celebration of these exceptional events was continued beyond the precincts of the Sacred Church with the food that was offered to all the faithful, who would not stop cheering for their new clerics.
Immediately after that, we left together by car for Rwanda, where the catechumens were expecting us anxiously in order to receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of baptism. Hundreds of people were gathered near a small creek in order to watch joyously the illumination of the first 230 Orthodox Rwandans. Men, women and children were entering the river, our own little Jordan, with joy while all of them resembled angels in their white tunics. In the Divine Liturgy conducted outdoors for the first time, the neophytes partook of the Blessed Sacrament with their new Christian name.
Then, we visited all the communities that eagerly invite us in order to learn about Orthodoxy. Even our brothers from Russia living in Rwanda, feel very comforted by the Divine Liturgies which we perform in a specific area at a house that we had to rent. Having this house as its base, the presence and work of the Orthodox Church has been officially recognized by the government. Of course we pray to the benevolent God that he enlightens people who love Mission, i.e. all of you and each one individually, to support us financially so that we can respond to the large number of spiritual and material needs of the long-suffering brothers of our Metropolis. The running costs are high, as we have to move constantly from one country to another and go to any remote area that is craving for the truth of our Christ. We try to make a careful planning of our dreams for building an Episcopal see, churches, schools and structures that could relieve the pain and misery of thousands of orphans who are still on the road, even so many years after the civil war. Finally, we would like to ask all our Orthodox brethren to remember us in their prayers for this new “little vineyard” that His right hand has planted.
It is a great joy and honor for me to communicate with you in order to make you participants in the work which is being performed, by the Grace of God, with the blessing and love of His Beatitude Theodore II, Patriarch and Pope of Alexandria and All Africa, and of course, with your own contribution and support, material as well as spiritual.
I have been offering my ministry to the Holy Diocese of Burundi and Rwanda for about 15 months now. Our primary concern is the further improvement of the way the local Church is organized and the appeal to the people who want to learn more about her and enter into the bosom of Orthodoxy.
As you already know, in the capital city of Burundi, Bujumbura, there are some churches operating, such as the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Theotokos at the city center and St Arsenios Holy Church in the industrial area, while St Demetrios Holy Church at Tsarama district is still incomplete and is used for catechism.
About two hours distance from Bujumbura lies the Orthodox parish of Buramata, whose residents are war refugees. As it is easily understood, the region has huge lacks and needs, the most immediate being the people’s need for evangelism, fighting hunger, provision of better education and health care and configuration of the social environment. It is in these fields that we are taking action. More specifically:
After a three-month-catechesis, more than 600 catechumens have been added to the Orthodox Church, while 120 couples had a religious wedding after their baptism. The number of catechumens is increasing on a daily basis.
In September, the beginning of the school year, we conducted the Blessing of Water service, distributed stationery items to the pupils and bought bicycles for the teaching staff members who live away from school, which is attended by about 600 schoolchildren, boys and girls.
On each one of our visits, we distribute medicines to all those who need them. Also, we contribute actively, within our capabilities, to poverty alleviation in cases of natural disasters.
We offered a considerable -for our meagre finances- amount of money to several Orthodox and not only cooperatives, such as the bread-making co-operative and the rice farming ones.
We are implementing a feeding program which includes providing a meal (rice and beans) on a daily basis, not only to the school children but also to the teaching staff. As far as I know, all the members of the Orthodox Church of Buramata are pleased with our contribution by 80% to their survival.
Today, there are more than 100 people who have already been baptized, while another 3,000 are catechized every Saturday and Sunday after the morning prayer. There are already 15 parishes operating under the supervision of the catechists.
The Divine Liturgy is only conducted once a month because there is no local priest; therefore, a priest from Burundi is responsible for serving the Divine Liturgy here in Rwanda.
With the blessing of our Patriarch, we have sent to our Orthodox Ecclesiastical School “Makarios III” in Nairobi, Kenya, two young men from Rwanda so that they can study Theology and enter priesthood. Actually, the one was ordained priest a few days ago.
We maintain excellent relations with the authorities of Rwanda. In fact, they seem to care about the way our Church is organized. The communities where Orthodoxy has a strong presence are the regions of Kaziba, Rwabatanzi, Kigali and Nyamata.
The mayors of all the provinces invite us and ask for catechetical centers to be created, however, there is no infrastructure for the realization of their wish, at least for the time being, due to our inability to buy the land required for the erection of churches.
We are currently designing a new education system for young men and women, in cooperation with the mayors of several regions. We also operate the Sunday school, which is intended for children, after the Divine Liturgy.
Moreover, I would like to let you know that according to the law in Rwanda, I could not take any action without being a permanent resident of this country. As a result, I had to rent a house myself. We need to have a permanent home, by buying either a site in order to build a house, or a ready-made one. The purchase of a site is about 30.000-35,000€ while that of a ready-made house comes to 70.000-100,000 €.
On closing my letter, I would like to remind you of a few other problems, too, several of which already existed, and some new ones, which have arisen on the way, such as erection of churches in Rwanda, creation of a polyclinic and of places of assembly, fundraising for scholarships for destitute students and also erection of a Middle School in Buramata.
Finally, if I am not being too demanding or annoying, we need some money for buying items that concern the hygiene of the young women and schoolgirls, who miss classes at school during the difficult days of the month.
Burundi, Rwanda: two neighboring countries in central eastern Africa, which, from 1884, had a joint course, being German colonies until 1916 and Belgian until 1962. Their meeting with history lasted for about nineteen years starting from 1993, when the hatred between the two dominant tribes, the Tutsi and the Hutu, led to the most inhumane civil war in Africa, which culminated with a genocide, similar to which has never existed before, at least as far as I know.
This fratricidal war is over now, leaving behind two blood-stained countries, about one million casualties, thousands of mutilated people, thousands of refugees who saw from one moment to another all their belongings vanish, thousands of orphans that wander aimlessly on the streets looking for food everywhere, even in the garbage, in order to fool their hunger. Little by little, the refugees are coming back trying to forget and start a new life, which will not be easy at all.
We try to stand by them in their effort with the meager means we have at our disposal, support them and strengthen them mentally and spiritually so that they will not lose their hope or faith. They are people deprived of everything, of all those things that we take for granted: food, water, medical as well as pharmaceutical care, schooling, love….
That is why they are content with little, especially the children. A candy, a pencil, a smile, a little hug, an acceptance, makes them happy.
Our material help in these hard times is little, but they understand our care and concern for them as well as our love, whose perfect example is the benefactor of the whole world, God, Whom they long to meet.
The Orthodox people of Burundi total up to three thousand, while the Greeks are only thirty. In Rwanda, the greek families can be counted on the fingers of one hand and they are not organized into a community. The flock of the Orthodox Rwandan Church is composed of a few Russian families, very pious indeed. I have visited them a couple of times. Actually, on my last visit, on June 15th and 16th, they asked me to perform the sacrament of Unction at a family home and the next day they confessed their sins and received the Holy Communion after many years, in a liturgy conducted in the yard of a house, since there is no orthodox church. There is only one under construction, which is still incomplete.
There, I was persistently asked to meet two priests of the “Anglican-Orthodox” Church (this is how they call their church, which numbers 2,000 members), who expressed their own desire as well as the desire of all their believers to join the Orthodox Church.
As far as the Burundi matters are concerned, the situation is as follows. In Bujumbura, capital city of Burundi, there is a church of the Dormition of the Theotokos, which was built in 1955 on money coming from the Greek Community and which is in urgent need of maintenance. It is a magnificent church which used to meet the needs for worship of the faithful of the whole Central Africa. Also, there is the Saint Arsenius church in the industrial area of Bujumbura. Within the same plot, there are buildings where we hope to house Computer Training schools, technical and vocational schools as well as Seminaries, which will address to those people who wish to enter the priesthood. However, they cannot operate currently due to legal impediments that concern the ownership of the land.
Saint Demetrios Holy Church has not been completed yet, while the buildings that are intended for polyclinics and medical center also contravene the state legislation, which prohibits the presence of patients within the church yard. I would like to assure you that we do everything in our power to overcome these obstacles so as to satisfy not only the wish of the donors who gave that money out of the little they have but also to help the natives enjoy a better quality of life.
Finally, on the borders of the Buramata province, there is an Orthodox community consisting of war refugees that have returned to their country.
The church of Saint Alexios and the Twelve Apostles is incomplete, the school does not have the capacity to hold 600 pupils-four more classrooms are needed, for which they asked me 100,000 dollars. A few days ago I talked with another contractor who assured me that he could make them for 60,000 dollars. The amounts are large, however, apart from the fact that the economies of these countries are damaged because of the war, they themselves do not produce anything, therefore, they import everything from Kenya and other countries nearby; as a result, the prices here are burdened.
This is in general the condition in our Diocese. We want to believe that once more you will show your love towards these creatures of God, the one and only Creator and Father.
With my Love in Christ Innocentios of Burundi and Rwanda