The murderer of three Italian missionary sisters in Burundi has been arrested and confessed to the crime, the Italian news agency ANSA reports.
He was found with the cellphone of one of the victims and the keys to their convent, local police said Tuesday.
Sister Bernadette Boggian, 79, Sister Olga Raschietti, 83, and Sister Lucia Pulici, 75, members of the Xaverian Order, were murdered on Sunday in two separate attacks. All three were from northern Italy.
Godefroid Bizimana, vice director-general of the Burundi police, said that Sister Bernadette was found to have been beheaded in the attacks which apparently occurred several hours apart in the sisters’ convent in the city of Kamenge north of the national capital.
A leader of the Xaverian Order said all three women were in poor health, but their love of Africa and especially Burundi drove them to continue to work there. “We are shocked and very surprised: the local population is as shocked as us,” and coming together to pray for the three women, said Sister Giordana Bertacchini, director-general of the Xaverian Missionaries of Parma in north-central Italy.
ANSA reports that a botched robbery attempt was an early theory for the attack, but this was reportedly dismissed because nothing appeared to have been stolen. Kamenge Mayor Damien Baseka described the murders as “savage”.
The bodies of Sister Lucia and Sister Olga were found on Sunday afternoon, leading to initial reports that only two sisters had been killed. Sister Bernadette’s body was found several hours later. It is believed that Sister Bernadette discovered her two slain colleagues, alerted police and Church officials, and several hours later was herself murdered and beheaded by an attacker who apparently had remained hidden in the convent after the initial violence.
Pope Francis received the news with “great sadness” and sent messages of condolence to the Xaverian Order as well as their families and friends. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi described the crime as “an atrocity that leaves one dismayed at the savagery”.
Vatican Radio said the three missionaries had been working among the sick and poor for seven years in Burundi, a predominantly Catholic country described as one of the five poorest countries in the world. Previously, they had been missionaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sister Olga had spent 50 years in Africa.
“All three of the murdered Italian nuns had serious health conditions, but all three, almost stubbornly, wanted to be buried in Burundi, a mark of love to the end,” said Sister Delia Guadagnini, former Regional Superior of the Xaverian Missionary Sisters of Mary for Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. Sister Delia knew the three slain sisters well.
“The three nuns returned to the parish agreeing to take on lighter tasks, because poor health prevented them from their former activities,” she told Fides news agency. “Totally at the service of the people, making home visits, helping the poor the sisters were greatly loved by the people”.
This is why, the former Superior continued, “we cannot understand. In Burundi there was never any misunderstanding and we cannot imagine who would want to hurt us in such an evil manner. What happened is a tragedy and a mystery”.
Regarding investigations Sister Delia said: “The authorities in Burundi are unwilling to comment. They say investigations are underway and some people are being questioned. The local people are dismayed and find no explanation for such a cruel act.”
Sister Delia, who is in Uvira (Democratic Republic of Congo) on the opposite side of Lake Tanganica to Bujumbura, went to the mission yesterday morning. “We are going to Bujumbura for the funeral,” she said.
“Then we will undertake the long journey to take the sisters’ coffins to the Xaverian cemetery in Bukavu (east DRC) where on Thursday there will be a Mass in the Cathedral. The bodies will not be brought back to Italy. This was the wish of all three of our sister missionaries, and also the desire of the people they loved and served who want to keep them here in Africa. A mark of love to the end.”