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Delegation from Burundi visits area for peace building

June 30, 2004

More than 20 Burundians recently concluded a three-week visit to Hagerstown, where they took part in a peace building and reconciliation training session, and discussed ways to address conflict in their East African nation.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau assisted Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with the group's visit. The Burundi delegation consisted of the nation's former prime minister, four bishops, various religious and lay community leaders, as well as representatives of women's, youth and rural organizations.

While in Hagerstown, the group participated in training and talks regarding techniques of reconciliation, trauma and healing of memories; parish building; strategies for building partnerships with ecumenical and civil societies as well as practical techniques for peace building in the context of Burundi.

The African nation, about the size of the state of Maryland, has endured a 10-year civil war. This conflict has led to nearly 300,000 deaths and forced more than a million people from their homes. These uprooted Burundians languish in camps for internally displaced persons within their country, or as refugees across the border.

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The Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Michael Courtney, who was killed in a December 2003 ambush, is the latest in a number of church leaders who have died in the conflict. Nearly 70 percent of the country is Catholic.

According to Betsy De Vore of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, "this was a low-key educational visit focused on building peace in Burundi. Hagerstown played host to the foreign delegation, and respected the group's desire to not publicize its presence until after the session concluded, as the delegation wanted to maintain a comfortable profile that would enable open dialogue."

While staying in Hagerstown, De Vore said that the group utilized the Shiloh Center, a local meeting and retreat facility where the group received a warm welcome, and felt most at home.

A peace process first began in Burundi during the mid-1990s. The process is beginning to bear fruit with the new establishment of a new three-year transitional power-sharing government and a transitional constitution. As Burundi moves toward an end to violence, it faces massive challenges, including the integration of former rebel forces into the national army and police units, reorganization of the government, judiciary and military to reflect the ethnic composition of the country, reintegration of returning refugees, and economic reconstruction.

The Hagerstown training is expected to lead to a more effective role for the church in the promotion of peace in Burundi. The group ended its visit in the United States on June 3, and upon their return to Burundi, will continue to develop and carry out a peace building action plan.

"It has been a truly humbling experience to witness the peaceful approach this delegation undertook," said Tom Riford, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Riford said that the Catholic Relief Services and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have been working closely with USAID, and the delegation from Burundi, to help bring about peace to the country.

"The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions in Burundi that can help shape a culture of peace as the war-torn nation begins to move into a post-conflict situation. As the host community, I'm very pleased that Hagerstown and Washington County may have played a hopeful part in leading to a lasting peace in Burundi."

Riford also praised the peacebuilding opportunity, "It's wonderfully appropriate that a peacebuilding delegation visited Washington County. The Burundians understood that our county has historical significance for examples of both war and peacebuilding. The Battle at Antietam is an example of the horrors of civil conflict, but also a reminder that America reformed into peaceful unity."

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