The Catholic bishops of Burundi have denounced the country’s recent general elections, and alleged irregularities in the voting process earlier this month.

The president of the Burundi Conference of Catholic Bishops (BCCB) issued a statement on Tuesday following the victory of Evariste Ndayishimiye, former secretary-general of the country’s ruling party, the CNDD-FDD.

“We deplore many irregularities with regard to the freedom and transparency of the electoral process as well as fairness in the treatment of certain candidates and voters,” said Bishop Joachim Ntahondereye of Muyinga after results were announced, according to AFP.

On Monday, the electoral commission declared Ndayishimiye the winner of the country’s May 20 election. He received 68.72% of the votes, more than double the opposition’s leader, Agathon Rwasa, who received 24.19%.

The opposing party, the National Council for Liberty (CNL), called the process “an electoral masquerade” and promised to appeal to the Constitutional Court this week. If the opposition’s appeal is rejected, Ndayishimiye will be sworn into office in August.

“In the face of these and other irregularities, we wonder whether they do not prejudice the (final) results to be proclaimed by the Constitutional Court on 4 June,” the bishops asked, according to Africa News.

The bishops have been outspoken before. In 2019, they alleged that minority parties were being “suffocated” ahead of the presidential election.

In response, government officials called for their laicization.

“Some bishops should be defrocked because it is becoming a habit: on the eve of elections they spit their venomous hatred through incendiary messages,” said presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe on Twitter.

Burundi is a landlocked East African country of almost 12 million. It has faced near constant political turmoil since the 1970s, and has been the place of two different genocides.

The Burundi bishops said their election observers noted, among other unfair actions, the ruling party engaged in electoral fraud, coercion, and intimidation. The government has been accused of detaining or ejecting CNL officials from the polls. Further, no foreign observers were permitted into the country to help supervise a fair election.

The Catholic Church “deplores in particular the coercion exercised on certain proxies to sign in advance the counting of the contents of the ballot boxes, the stuffing of some ballot boxes, the voting in place of deceased and refugees, multiple and therefore invalid proxies, the fact that there were in some polling stations voters who voted more than once,” the bishops said, according to Africa News.

The bishops also condemned “the exclusion of proxies and observers from the places where the votes are counted, the intimidation and coercion of some voters by administrative officials who accompanied them to the polling booths, the intrusion of unauthorised persons into the counting stations.”

The Church deployed 2,716 observers to overview the polling stations. While the number of observers was fewer than the number of stations, they were able to analyze polling stations in all of Burundi’s 119 municipalities.

Outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has ruled the country since 2005, applauded the victory of his party.

His final term in office was strongly opposed by the U.S., U.K., opposing parties, and Burundi bishops. His 2015 decision to seek a third term triggered violence in the country that left at least 1,200 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Last year, the bishops emphasized the administration's political violence and warned that the Imbonerakure – the youth wing of the ruling party – had replaced security forces in the country.

In response, the government said that some bishops should be defrocked and claimed that these men were spitting “venomous hatred through incendiary messages,” according to a tweet from presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe.

Following the country’s turmoil in 2015, Pope Francis encouraged prayers for the country and the victims of violence.

“I also wish to invite you to pray for the dear people of Burundi, who are living in a delicate moment,” the Pope said in his May 17 address ahead of the Regina Caeli prayers.

“May the Lord help everyone flee the violence and act responsibly for the good of the country.”