August 8, 2001
The 1994 Rwandan genocide, killing an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, is made even more incomprehensible by the documented participation of many representatives of Rwandan church societies. How could God fearing nuns, and even a bishop, take part in the most cruel crimes against humanity committed on African soil? Even worse, several church societies allegedly were co-responsible for the growing hatred that led to the genocide. It remains an enormous contradiction to the Christian Message of Love.
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7).
On 7 May 1994 soldiers and militias arrived at Shyogwe Diocese aboard a red pick-up vehicle to transport civilian Tutsi refugees to the killing sites. "On that day Bishop Samuel Musabyimana was present and, addressing the soldiers and militias, publicly stated that he did not oppose the killing of Tutsis, but that he did not want killings at the Diocese and that the Tutsis should be taken to Kabgayi to be killed." (Indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda against former Anglican Bishop Samuel Musabyimana).
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40).
On 22 April 1994, Séraphine Mukamana had hidden herself in a garage when militias attacked a convent in Sovu in southern Rwanda. "We sought refugee in the garage and closed and barricaded the doors. Outside a bloodbath is going on. Suddenly an orphan begins to weep as it gets to hot in the garage. At once, the killers approach the garage." As the refugees refuse to come out, the militia leader Emmanuel Rekeraho decides to burn them alive in the garage. "'The nuns are coming to help us. They are bringing gasoline,' I heard [Rekeraho] say. Looking through a hole that the militiamen meanwhile had made in the wall, I indeed saw Sister Gertrude and Sister Kisito. The latter was carrying a petrol can. Shortly upon that, the garage is set on fire." Testimony against two Catholic nuns, Sisters Gertrude and Maria Kisito in a Brussels court, May 2001.
Creating a Hutu identity In 1957, the Hutu catechist Gregoire Kayibanda, under the ideological patronage of J.P. Harroy, the Belgian Governor of Rwanda and Mgr. Perraudin, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda, publishes the 'Hutu Manifesto' demanding the political authority be granted to the Hutu majority. According to the present Rwandan government, in that year "the Catholic Church encourages Gregoire Kayibanda and his associates to form political parties ... to champion 'Bahutu interests'".
In 1959 "PARMEHUTU (Le Parti du Mouvement de l'emancipation Hutu) is established under the guidance of the Catholic church by the proponents of delayed independence. PARMEHUTU was also openly sectarian and anti-Batutsi," again according to the Rwandan government. The same year, the first massacres of thousands of Tutsi is organised by radicalised Hutus, "under Belgian supervision".
In contemporary Rwanda, politically dominated by Tutsis and moderate Hutus, questions about the Catholic Church's role in the polarisation of Rwandans, in its extreme leading towards the 1994 genocide, are openly debated. In Rwanda, before the genocide called "Africa's most Christian country," over 50 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Some 12 percent belong to other Christian societies.
As in most African ex-colonies, the missionaries in Rwanda also embarked on a policy of divide and rule, in close cooperation with the colonial administration. In the Belgian Trust Territories of Rwanda and Burundi this meant creating the ethnicities of Hutu and Tutsi and promoting the Hutu majority against the ruling Tutsi.
The Catholic Church, effectively supporting the creation of a Hutu identity and nationalism, thus became part of the Hutu movement. The mission was rewarded by mass conversions of Rwandan Hutus, making Catholicism the dominant religion in Rwanda. As the radical Hutus gained power in Rwanda at independence in 1962, Catholic and other clergymen found themselves with personal friends in all levels of governance and with good access to the centres of power.
Unlike most African countries, however, the succeeding Hutu-dominated governments of Rwanda were gradually radicalised. The government institutionalised discrimination against the Tutsi and periodically used massacres against this targeted population as a means of maintaining the status quo. Resistance was organised by the growing number of Tutsi refugees, mostly hiding in Uganda, and grew strong through the 1980s and early 1990s.
The Killing Fields As it became obvious that the radical government was on the defensive in the early 1990s, it embarked on a Hitlerist plan to find a "permanent solution" to the "Tutsi problem". A genocide, that was to kill between 750,000 and one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, was carefully planned and implemented. Hate propaganda was spread throughout the country and local representatives got their orders on whom to kill and whom to involve in the killings. Surprisingly many took part in the killings, and even more incomprehensible, also many members of the clergy were involved in the genocide in some degree.
The extreme cases include the Anglican bishop Samuel Musabyimana, who allegedly "was responsible for killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the Tutsi population with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a racial or ethnic group". Another extreme is the sentence against two Catholic nuns, Sisters Gertrude Mukangango and Julienne Kisito, for their involvement in the slaughter of at least 5,000 civilians that had sought refuge in their monastery at Sovu.
Archbishop Augustin Nshamihigo and the coadjutor Bishop of Kigali, Jonathan Ruhumuliza, were seen describing the government responsible for orchestrating the genocide as "peace-loving" at a Nairobi press conference in early June 1994. The accusations against clergy of the Free Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist Churches are equally shocking. According to survivors, Bishop Aaron Ruhumuliza, head of the Free Methodist Church in Gikondo, Kigali, helped the militia carry out a massacre in his own church on 9 April 1994. Michel Twagirayesu, the President of the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda and a former vice-president of the World Council of Churches, is alleged to have worked closely with the killers in the Presbyterian stronghold of Kirinda, Kibuye, betraying parishioners and fellow-clergy alike, according to a report by African Rights.
How could they? A better question may be, "how could anybody participate in this"? Historians still are puzzled by the largest genocide in world history, Nazi Germany's systematic killing of an estimated six million people, most of them Jews. Although the Nazi's Holocaust remains mostly incomprehensible, one sees clear parallels in the systematic tactics behind the organisation of the two genocides. First, the future victims were stripped off their human dignity, official propaganda labelling them "pigs" (Nazi Germany) or "cockroaches" (Rwanda), creatures without a right to live. Hate is systematically spread, the "unworthy" being responsible for all the ills of society. Radicals and hardliners are carefully picked to organise the killings. Others are given tasks slowly making them more and more involved in the actions to come. Suddenly, there exists a nation of perpetuators.
Like the Catholics, many within the hierarchy of the Protestant churches had had close links with the Hutu regimes since independence. These links continued when the government was radicalised step by step. The profound links were clearly demonstrated when most of the Rwandan church leaders fled the country following the military defeat of the government responsible for the genocide. This did not mean that the church hierarchies were systematically involved in the planning of the genocide, but it indicated that the churches as organisations had not taken the responsibilities they were supposed to, due to their too close links to the government.
Not only were Christian members of the congregations of every single denomination in Rwanda responsible for the most appalling atrocities, but many massacres took place in the parishes where the targets of the genocide had sought sanctuary. Many church leaders have since acknowledged that the Church in Rwanda failed as an institution, although individual clergy showed immense courage, risking their lives to save those of others.
Living with the shame While members of all Christian congregations plaid a part in the atrocities, what most differentiates the Rwandan churches is how they have chosen to live with the shame some members had brought over them. While some have asked Rwandans for forgiveness, other churches still carefully avoid the issue of guilt.
After years of accepting privileges from the Habyarimana regime and overlooking its injustices, the Church leaders maintained their silence in the face of genocide, a report by the organisation African Rights concludes. "It was five weeks after the killings began, by which time hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were dead, that the Protestant and Catholic leaders jointly issued a belated and feeble plea for peace, signed by some of the bishops who stand accused of involvement in the genocide."
It seemed all a repetition of the Churches' role in the Nazi Holocaust. All congregations had their perpetuators, but also their heroes hiding Jews from the Nazi killing machinery. Protestant congregations however showed genuine remorse and shame over their failures during the Nazi dictatorship. The Vatican - the Pope at that time still being suspected of cooperating with the Fascists and Nazis - on the other hand still finds it difficult to admit guilt. It is symptomatic that the parts of the Vatican archives that could cast light on the Pope's involvement with Nazi Germany still remain closed to historians.
The genocide shook all the Christian churches, and provoked reactions of confessing guilt by most of them. Protestant congregations mostly asked Rwandans pardon for the atrocities committed by their members and excommunicated members suspected of forming part of the genocide. Anglican Bishop Samuel Musabyimana immediately was excommunicated as the charges against him were known.
Begging pardon however seems a more complicated issue for the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul in May 1996 however told the Rwandan people, "The Church ... cannot be held responsible for the guilt of its members that have acted against the evangelic law; they will be called to render account of their own actions. All Church members that have sinned during the genocide must have the courage to assume the consequences of their deeds they have done against God and fellow men."
A statement regarding the guilt of the Churches as institutions is however missed. "They have been less willing to comment upon the specific accusations against certain clergymen," according to African Rights. This has proven especially true regarding the Catholic Church, which in June 2001 stated its "surprise" over a Belgian court convicting two Rwandan nuns for aiding in the slaughter of at least 5,000 civilians. The Vatican spokesman could not understand why the court picked on the two nuns "seeing the grave responsibility of so many [other] people and groups involved." The Vatican has taken no steps towards excommunicating the nuns from the Church.
"Kagame responsible for the genocide?" The majority of church societies thus have preferred to keep a low profile on the Rwandan genocide, while some openly confess their sins. There are however groups within the Catholic Church that have turned surprisingly offensive against the victims of genocide.
The Spanish journal "Mundo Negro" ("Black World"), organ of the Catholic Comboni missionaries, for example featured a front-page story titled "[Present Rwanda President Paul] Kagame responsible for the genocide?" in its April 2001 edition. The article, leaning on "anonymous sources", is one in a series of allegations against the present Rwandan President, thus chief of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) that toppled the government responsible of the genocide in 1994.
President Kagame, who allegedly has been connected to the shooting down of an airplane killing Rwandan President Juvénal Habyalimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira on 6 April 1994 thus "was the main responsible of ... the Rwandan genocide," the article maintains. The genocide had been part of Kagame's plan to achieve power. While the UN reports on positive trends in the human rights situation and democratisation process of Rwanda, the missionary journal maintains, "all power in Rwanda is in the hands of the Army."
The same journal, on its editorial space commenting on the Brussels case against the two Catholic nuns commented: "It remains suspicious that the accusers and witnesses always are the same, that is to say Tutsis, while nobody has put on trial the ones who murdered four Rwandan bishops - Hutus - and 248 priests, male and female clergies, including the Spanish missionary P. Joaquin Vallmajó. Almost all these - with certainty the bishops and the Spanish missionary - were assassinated by Tutsis."
While the Spanish Comboni Missionaries remain confused differentiating crimes against humanity and crimes against individual Church members, the Church in Rwanda has understood that it must seek reconciliation. Catholic and Protestant congregations actively work to achieve reconciliation, unity and peace in this country, where the majority still suffer strong traumas inflicted by the genocide.
In April 2001, for example, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kabgayi concluded a two-year synod of seven hundred representatives of the clergy and laity, with a resolution to work towards building unity among Rwandans. Leaders of the Catholic and Protestant Churches for several years have joined hands with Kagame's "Government of National Unity" preaching and fostering unity among the Rwandan people.
Hatred propaganda against Tutsis, Hutus or the government, such as propagated by the Comboni Missionaries, meets general disgust among the awakened Rwandan clergy of today. Although the churches remain in a complex relation to their own past, the local clergy certainly has learned that the unity of the Rwandan peoples is a precious gift not to jeopardised by promoting one group at the cost of another.
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