SAFE SANCTUARY?: THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH IN GENOCIDE
1994 was the most tragic year in the history of Rwanda as the country
experienced a genocide that swept away more than a million Tutsi. This was a
carefully conceived, planned and carried out genocide, as proven by its
record death toll. The world was shocked.
To this day, people still wonder what the causes of this slaughter were.
Some even point at the church of Rwanda, in this instance the Catholic
Church, which was then the most representative and the most influential in
the country. Indeed, it represents more than 60% of the population and had
for a long time boasted the moral high ground, which could have been used to
curb this disaster.
The question is then to know whether the church really tried to make use of
its influence or if it rather failed to fulfill its duties, as several
analyses seem to confirm. At the moment when we commemorate the tenth
anniversary of those tragic events, it is necessary to sort the events out
and draw out the responsibilities of the parties. This contribution is based
on personal experience as well as various investigations in this field.
As soon as they arrived in Rwanda in the 1900s, the first settlers and white
missionaries found a well-structured country ruled by the Mwami. Even though
the power was concentrated in the hands of the Tutsi minority, the
missionaries did not deign to protest against this situation.
They even found it natural and went as far as asserting that the Tutsi were
intellectually superior to the Hutus and were the only ones able to rule the
country. They invented the Hamite myth that said the Tutsi were actually
white men with a black skin. They developed typologies that were probably
influenced by the evolutionist theories that were fashionable in those days.
The schools they opened were almost exclusively reserved for Tutsi children.
They also made an obvious effort to convert to their religion numerous
children from the aristocracy.
For decades, both the Belgian colonial power therefore relied on the Tutsi,
stockbreeders more akin to a cast than to an ethnic group, to rule the
country and dominate the Hutu farmers, by far the largest group in the
But in the late 1950's, when the Tutsi elite started to wave claims of
independence and the Mwami contemplated appealing to the United Nations,
both Belgium and the Church decided to defend the democratic rights of the
Hutu majority, embodied by Grégoire Kayibanda, former secretary of the
bishop of Kabgayi and founder of the Party for the Promotion of the Hutu
The Catholic Church actively involved itself with the first Hutu
revolutionaries, often former pupils of its schools, and denounced the
social injustice it had once promoted. A letter of Mgr André Perraudin, then
bishop of Kabgayi, that was published at the occasion of the Lent of 1959,
agrees in many aspects with the broad outlines of the Hutu manifesto
launched on the 24th of March 1959.
In this pastoral letter entitled 'Super Omnia Caritas', the prelate declared
that the resources as well as the political and even judicial powers were in
truly considerable proportion within the hands of people of one race only.
He predicted imminent bloodshed if the situation was to remain unchanged.
After a referendum, carefully guided by the Belgian colonial power and the
church, had installed a republic, thus exiling the last king, the Tutsi were
stripped from their power, evicted from their lands and physically
threatened. Hundred of thousands of them sought refuge in neighbouring
countries, notably Uganda.
Throughout the three following decades, the Church was perfectly aware of
human rights violations but did not lift a finger. It gave its blessing to
the abuses of power of the young republic and got further involved in social
activities. This conniving silence was indubitably interpreted by the rulers
as a sign of support.
Grégoire Kayibanda, the first president, was close to catholic circles and
had clergymen among his counsellors, specifically his grace André Perraudin,
who was seen as his spiritual father. The first republic displayed notorious
intransigence towards the exiles and exercised undisputed power under cover
of majority democracy. Instead of grasping this opportunity to reassure the
royalists and the Tutsi in general, the government was driven by feelings of
Every time an attack was launched by the exiles, the Tutsi paid for it with
their blood. This was the case in the years 1961/1962. The president himself
declared in his speeches that such actions by the exiles endangered the
lives of their brothers who stayed in the country. The Catholic Church,
present out in the field all across the country, did nothing to stop the
mass killings and went on working hand in hand with the government until it
Major-General Juvénal Habyarimana, then staff officer of the army, seized
power in 1973. The Church ignored the circumstances in which this power was
taken and gave full support to the new regime. When the MRND, the party of
the president and future grassroots of the infamous interahamwe, was founded
in 1975, some religious leaders became active members. A system of
ethnically based quotas introduced by the government was also applied in
some religious schools. The same racial discrimination was carried out in
the choice of bishops.
At no point did the Church raise its voice to denounce the dictatorship of
the MRND and its policy of exclusion. Those who dared to criticize it, such
as Mrs Félicula Nyiramutarambirwa and father Silvio Sindambiwe, have paid
dearly for their views.
The Church also took an active part in party propaganda. Certain homilies
often sounded like popular meetings. After the attack of the FPR rebels in
1990, the government did a mock attack on Kigali and arbitrarily arrested
thousands of Tutsi. The Church again missed the opportunity to distance
itself from the government.
Mass killings like those in Bugesera and Bigogwe, which were aimed at Tutsi,
did not change anything. When it was time to contribute to the war effort,
the Church was more than eager. This connivance from the Church and the
state would carry on until the genocide and even its eruption in April 1994
did not change the position of the Church. The first massacres of the
morning of the 7th of April took place in Kigali at Remera Christus Centre
where priests, seminarians on holiday and other visitors were killed.
The behaviour of these men of God in those crucial moments is revolting to
say the least; some of them even handed over their own colleagues to the
executioners; others refused to shelter in their parishes the refugees
flocking there; and others offered to hide them only to fetch the
This was the case of the two Benedictine nuns, Consolate Mukangango and
Julienne Mukabutera, who used to run the convent in Sovu and collaborated
with the killers to the point where they provided them with the petrol that
was to set ablaze the building where 500 Tutsi were hiding. They have
recently been sentenced by a Brussels court to 15 and 12 years respectively.
The case of minister Elizaphan Ntakirutimana should not be ignored either.
At more than 70 years of age, he was the minister of the Adventist Church of
the Seventh Day in Mugonero, Kibuye. The International Criminal Tribunal for
Rwanda recently sentenced him to 10 years in jail. Instead of answering to
the cries for help of his Tutsi colleagues who relied on his influence in
the area and begged him to intervene, he sent them militia men while he was
himself driving killers to different massacre sites in his own vehicle.
These are only a few examples among thousands. Indeed, other religious
people are still held prisoners or are wanted by justice. Churches, once
seen as sanctuaries, were turned into slaughterhouses. The churches of
Nyarubuye, Cyahinda, Karama, and Kibeho have become remnants of this sad
episode. Men of God, who once were seen as role models and enjoyed an
indisputable moral authority, did not know how to use it in order to save
lives of innocents. Their silence and their participation in those fatal
moments brought a sort of "acknowledgement and legitimacy" to the ignoble
acts in the eyes of the killers.
The priest and the minister have always been considered upright, wise and
even saintly. It is therefore quite obvious that their attitude mattered
enormously for their congregation. The highest hierarchy, doubtlessly closer
to the government, did not use its influence to bring political officials to
their senses. Five weeks after the genocide had started, four Catholic
bishops and a few ministers of the Protestant Church published a document,
which was, to say the least, half-hearted, in which they called on both
parties, the then government and the RPF troops, to stop the massacres. The
word genocide was not even suggested.
When the government fled the fights and settled in the centre of the
country, the bishops abandoned their dioceses to follow it. They later did
the same thing when, after the defeat, they scattered into Zaire, Tanzania,
The attitude of the Church at the end of the genocide was not one of great
courage. Some of its members went into revisionism, others tried to cover
the crimes of their colleagues. To this day, the Church as an institution
has never apologized for this very serious failure.
>From the Vatican to the Episcopal council of Rwanda, there is contentment
with saying that the crimes of some of theirs have nothing to do with the
Church as a whole, thus seeming to ignore that they have been educated,
ordained and appointed by the Church.
Furthermore, those who ran towards them did so because they saw in them a
representative of the Church. Without playing down its part in the economic
and social field of the country, the Church failed seriously. Whether one
admits it or not, it has played an active part in the misery that has
befallen on Rwanda and has lost some of its credibility. Not to acknowledge
it would be foolish.
* Camille Karangwa survived the genocide in Rwanda and now lives in
Pretoria, South Africa, where he works for the African Association of
Political Science. He has just published at the 'Editions du jour' a book
entitled 'Le chapelet et la machette : Sur les traces du génocide rwandais'.
He can be contacted at the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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