By: Tom Ndahiro*

Why do they eat my people as they eat bread? (Psalm 14) 

All over Rwandan hills, valleys and mountains, thousands of crosses mark mass graves of genocide victims of 1994. During the genocide, many Tutsis were massacred in or around places of worship, including Catholic churches – paradoxically, in a country which was the most Christianised in Africa, with Christians representing more than 80% of the population. Catholic bishops in Rwanda have sometimes claimed that all Rwandans believe in God.[1] There are hundreds of churches and chapels everywhere and almost every day followers repeatedly recite the prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven”, pleading with the Father to deliver them from evil (Matthew 6:13). From where, then, did the malevolence at the root of the genocide come? How and by whom could it have been overcome? Part of the answer to these questions is the Church and its members.

According to the scripture, “To reject evil and do what is good” (Isaiah 7:15) is the authentic deliverance. It is an unfortunate fact that most of those involved in organising the whole process leading to the genocide were people who were baptised Christians. Many were in the church hierarchy, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, which is the focus of this paper.

By omission and or commission, the Church leadership was, involved in the genocide against Tutsis. Considering what genocide is – by definition or as a crime – the involvement of an institution like the Church demands painstaking analysis.

The role of the Church in the creation of exterminationist ideology

According to Jean-Pierre Karegeye, a Jesuit priest, genocide is morally hideous, an evil expressed in forgetting God, and hence a new form of atheism. Karegeye asks several pertinent questions which merit consideration: “Christians killing other Christians? How could Rwandan Christians who manifested commitment to their faith have acted with such intense cruelty? How did ordinary people come to commit extraordinary evil…? Does the sin of genocide disturb the relationship between God and the perpetrators in official Catholic Church discourse? How can we explain the strange situation of priests involved in the crimes of genocide who are still running parishes in Western countries? Why are they protected by the Vatican against any legal proceedings?” He concludes: “The Church’s attitude towards genocide seems to suggest that the hierarchy of religious values is not usually in proportion to the hierarchy of moral standards.” On the issue of priests who are accused of genocide, and currently living in Europe and may be other parts of the ‘developed world’ see Le Dossiers de Golias- Rwanda: L’honneur perdu de l’Église (Édition Golias-France April 1999)

Generally, in Rwanda, the leadership of the Christian Churches, especially that of the Catholic Church, played a central role in the creation and furtherance of racist ideology. They fostered a system which they introduced.  The building blocks of this ideology were numerous, but one can mention a few – first, the racist vision of Rwandan society that the missionaries and colonialists imposed by developing the thesis about which groups came first and last to populate the country (the Hamitic and Bantu myths); second, by rigidly controlling historical and anthropological research; third, by reconfiguring Rwandan society through the manipulation of ethnic identities (from their vague socio-political nature in the pre-colonial period, these identities gradually became racial). From the late 1950s, some concepts became distorted: thus democracy became numerical democracy or demographic.

The philosophy of ‘rubanda nyamwinshi’ a kinyarwanda expression which politically came to mean ‘the Hutu majority’ prevailed after the so-called social revolution of 1959, ignored the basic tenets of democracy. In my view, recurrent genocides in Rwanda since 1959 were meant to maintain the ‘Hutu majority’ in power, by killing the Tutsi. Distributive justice became equivalent to regional and ethnic quotas; and revolution came to mean legitimised genocide of the Tutsis.

Church authorities contributed to the spread of racist theories mainly through the schools and seminaries over which they exercised control. The elite who ruled the country after independence trained in these schools. According to Church historian Paul Rutayisire, Church authorities maintained a tight network of communication with many ramifications. Church teachings culminated in massive conversions (irivuze umwami) and in the establishment of Catholicism as a state religion, especially from 1947 with King Mutara III Rudahigwa’s consecration of Rwanda to Christ the King.[2]

King Rudahigwa, a replacement for his exiled father, was baptised in 1943, and a wave of conversions (including those of chiefs) followed his baptism. But these conversions were not the result of profound faith; the missionaries were only interested in baptising as many people as possible.[3] As a result, there was an increase in the number of geographical centres to disseminate Christianity, as well as an increase in Church personnel. In these circumstances, the evangelisation could not reach the hearts of the people; it was superficial. This quantitative rather than qualitative growth became another source of future disaster.[4]

It is unfortunate, says Rutayisire, that these bearers of good news promoted and legitimized political regimes which supported the racist ideology: first, the colonial regime, based on racial discrimination between the coloniser and colonised, and on the division of Rwandans into “races” or “castes”; then the First and Second Republics which prided themselves on being “Hutu” regimes.[5]

In colonial times (1930s) missionaries used their influence and power to help secure the banishment of the King of Rwanda, Yuhi Musinga, for the simple reason that he refused to be converted to Christianity. The colonisers following the advice of Bishop Leon Classe, advisor of the colonial administration, exiled the King.[6] The King later died in Belgian Congo, thousands of kilometres from his country of birth.

Triumph of evil

The stereotypes that were used to dehumanise Tutsis, were the brainchild of some influential clergymen, bishops and priests, before and after the genocide. The Catholic Church and colonial powers worked together in organizing racist political groups like the Party for the Emancipation of the Hutu (Parmehutu)[7]. When the first acts of genocide were carried out in Rwanda, at the beginning of 1959 and the early 60s, there were brave voices against them, notably that of Bishop Aloys Bigirumwami who wrote several Pastoral Letters condemning the ‘devil’s projects’.

In his Pastoral Letter of 15 November 1959, Bishop Bigirumwami expressed his exasperation at those who were to blame for the atrocities in the country. He also warned about the dangers of racism. “The greatest culprits are those (my emphasis) who advised others to kill, to burn houses; those who allowed themselves to be tempted to take part in violence, massacres and arson are the greatest accomplices, they are the enemies of Rwanda, they have sinned against God and against their neighbour… Those who put the country to fire and blood, may be they will not face any consequence here on earth, but they will not commend themselves to God’s mercy and even man’s mercy; they will not get off lightly on the day of judgment of the truth… Reasonable people, especially Christians, should not hold it against others for their birth and origin; …”[8]

Again on 25 January 1960, the same bishop wrote another letter, which this time, referred to the guilt of Christians and tackled the issue of racist-related crimes and attitudes.

“…Christians, know well that it is not the tragedy that has befallen Rwanda that is the worst of disasters.  What is the worst disaster is rather to persevere in the evil and to brag about it wickedly.  The worst disaster for Rwanda was that the proponents of the acts of stupidity, were not pagans, nor notorious apostates who have abandoned Christianity, but rather Christians who were illustrious, as good elements among others.  These Christians who incite others to evil, who preach hatred in Rwanda, they never miss mass on Sunday, and worse still, they do not fear to receive communion often.  This is the worst disaster in our country and in our church. These Christians discredit us in front of pagans and members of other religions.”[9]

The Bishops’s appeal at the time also went beyond Pastoral Letters.  In his Memorandum of 15March 1960 to the United Nations Mission to Rwanda, he said that Rwanda was under the “road roller”.  Yet again, racism and hate propaganda was the crux of the matter.  “…One thinks that internal violence and subversive propaganda are all out to spark off hatred, divisions between Hutu, Tutsi and Twa – real racism, whatever one may say – and yet these three social groups have always lived together in symbiosis and should continue doing so in a better manner.”[10]

As things turned from bad to worse, and the involvement of priests and nuns in the cataclysm became more discernible, the Bishop wrote another letter on June 10, 1960, this time more focused on the religious: “Fellow Rwandans, priests and the religious… and you the missionaries…” He pleaded with those who gave in during the “recent events” to examine their consciences, to open their eyes and ears, free themselves from temptations, renounce the temptation to sow discord in families by claiming that this was the best way to save Rwanda and its inhabitants.  In strong terms, he demanded:

“Let us fight wickedness and hatred because they will sink Rwanda and weaken the Church.  Evil and hatred continue to increase; it is said that a Muhutu cannot live with a Mututsi, that he must no longer be the teacher of his child at school, that they can no longer meet, share, trade, buy from each other, be in solidarity.  This disaster that has befallen us, ward it off through the God of Rwanda, conquer it through the Gospel of love, truth and justice… Let us stop being divided into parties, which disseminate the Hutu–Tutsi ethnicity because this would mean us sinking in the worst filth.  Things have gone wrong and we keep quiet, we remain bystanders, we laugh it off, how will this end?  People are tracked in every corner, refugees of all sorts flock in such numbers that there is nowhere to put them and we tell them to move on while they do not know where to go.  How is this going to end?  This happened first in Rwanda and now it is happening in Congo.  Rwanda has known no peace since November.  What are the consequences of these elections?  If we have praised Rwandans who chased other Rwandans, are we going to frown on those who will chase non-Rwandans?  With what is happening in Rwanda, and if this continues, do you think that people are going to live together?  Let us start by saving what is lost; let us stand up and look for friendliness of Rwandans among themselves; let us look forward, the sky is getting dark, the storm is brewing, let us put under shelter what is not covered… Let us strengthen the links of unity… if we do not succeed at home, we will have nothing else to do except to sink into the sea with a stone hanging around our necks…”[11]

The Bishop wrote this letter at the time when the referendum to bring the monarchy to an end was drawing close.  Many Rwandans (including myself) were either already refugees or would soon be.  Bishop Bigirumwami’s supplications vanished into the wilderness.  Why?  His colleague, Bishop André Perraudin[12], had a more “audible” voice and was the mentor of Parmehutu, formed on 16November 1959.[13]

It is significant that Bishop Perraudin’s language echoes that of the sponsors and perpetrators of genocide.  Talking about genocide in his book Mgr. André Perraudin – Un Evêque au Rwanda[14], and referring to the attack by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in October 1990, Perraudin states: “Tutsi leaders have never abandoned the idea of returning to power as manifested by the attack on 1October 1990 from Uganda… This unshakable will of returning to power, is the cause of all the events that plunged Rwanda in a blood-bath, including the genocide of Tutsi which was sparked off by the killing of Habyarimana on the evening of 6 April 1994… The argument often put forward that they (RPF) attacked to protect the Tutsi inside Rwanda is only a pretext; the true motive was to retake power.  It cannot be overemphasised enough, yet this is the explanation of everything that happened.  Without any doubt, it must be stated that the first and main cause of the genocide of Tutsi in April 1994 was the attack by the Tutsi themselves.  Without it and the killing of president Habyarimana, the genocide of Tutsi would not have happened…” It is disquieting to note that a church leader of that calibre, instead of conveying a message of consolation to the victims of the 1994 genocide, implies that the Tutsi were the cause of their own extermination.

Archbishop Perraudin remained influential in all regimes. On June 20,1976 he was replaced in the archdiocese of Kigali, by Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva,[15] a staunch member of the ruling MRND’s Central Committee in General Habyarimana’s regime. Bishop Perraudin, retired in 1989, and was replaced in his diocese of Kabgayi by Bishop Thaddée Nsengiyumva on October 7, 1989.   MRND was the party which in the mid-1970s had introduced and institutionalised policies of racial discrimination which they termed “équilibre éthnique et régional” (ethnic and regional equilibrium, a quota system).  It was a system advocated by Catholic priests in April 1972 including by André Havugimana, the current vicar-general of the Kigali Archdiocese. [16]

The letter read in part: “After the defeat of the counter-revolutionaries, the ‘Inyenzi’, one would have thought that reasonable people, consecrated to God’s service, would bow down before the irreversible reality of the victory of the people. Far from it, because they are still nurturing bitter regrets or still hoping for revenge… The Hutu seems to have fallen asleep on the laurels of victory while the Tutsi is working very hard in order to again become master of events. How long can we allow our dear [Tutsi] brothers to make fools of us and to ignore us and the people from whom we are descended?”

In the same letter they advised their bishops not to maintain vocation as an important element in recruiting and maintaining their seminarians. Asked by a journalist, Chris McGreal, on what he thought about the 1972 letter, Monsignor Havugimana replied it without any sense of contrition that it “was written in the context of what existed then …since it had relevance at the time…” He remained unremorseful.

The Church fully supported the quota system, as expressed in the Bishops’ letter of 28 February 1990: “…One hears, at times, people complain that due to their ethnic origin, employment or admission to school has been refused them.  They are either deprived of an advantage, or justice has not been impartial in its treatment towards them…You do not ignore the fact that the law of ethnic balance in employment and schools is aiming to correct this inequality that favoured one, to the detriment of the other.  It is evident that such policy cannot please everybody, and is unable to produce all the results they were hoping to gain.”[17]

On 30April 1990, five Catholic priests from Nyundo diocese broke the silence.  In a letter to the Church’s bishops in Rwanda, they called the quota system ‘racist’ and urged that it was high time “the Church of Jesus Christ established in Rwanda proclaimed aloud and tirelessly” to denounce it, since it constituted “an aberration” within their Church.  They maintained that the only sure justice in schools and employment was the one, which only took account of individual capacities, regardless of people’s origins, and that it was on this condition that the country could have citizens capable of leading it with competence and equity.

In conclusion, they said: “The Church should not be the vassal of the secular powers, but it should be free to speak with sincerity and courage when it proves necessary.”[18] The authors of this letter were Fr. Augustin Ntagara, Fr. Callixte Kalisa, Fr. Aloys Nzaramba, Fr. Jean Baptiste Hategeka, and Fr. Fabien Rwakareke.  All but the last two were killed during the genocide.

Within the Catholic Church, this discriminatory policy had long been introduced in the seminaries.  According to Fr. Jean Ndolimana, the enrolment of Tutsis in the Nyundo diocese was limited to 4%.  On the school card, every seminarian had to indicate his father’s ethnic group.[19]

Racial discrimination is something that has to condemned because, as it has been stressed: “…any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust, and dangerous and there is no justification, in theory or in practice, anywhere… [it] is an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations among nations and is capable of disturbing peace and security among peoples and the harmony of persons living side by side, even within one and the same state. Its existence is repugnant to the ideals of any human society …”[20]

The Church should have been aware of this, instead of condemning those who were against the racist system.  Instead, they played an important role in institutionalising injustice by convincing their congregants to accept a morally condemnable policy.  The Church regrettably took the side of the political regimes, and thereby could not exercise its prophetic role.  It did not denounce political and social injustices, nor did it condemn the first mass killings, nor those, which followed.

After 1 October 1990, the Government’s ideologues launched a hate campaign intended to polarize Rwandan society as preparation of the genocide was underway.  The trigger was the publication of the so-called “Hutu Ten Commandments” in the magazine Kangura, [21] whose chief Editor, Hassan Ngeze, was a Moslem.

The last three ‘Commandments’ are significant.  The eighth Commandment said that the “Bahutu should stop having mercy on the Batutsi,” while the ninth read: “The Bahutu, wherever they are, must have unity, solidarity and be preoccupied by the fate of their Hutu brothers; the Bahutu, both inside and outside Rwanda, must constantly look for friends and allies for the Hutu cause, starting with our Bantu brothers; they must constantly counteract the Tutsi propaganda.  The Bahutu must be firm and vigilant against their common enemy who are the Batutsi.”

The tenth Commandment went back to the roots. “The 1959 social revolution, the 1961 referendum and the hutu ideology must be taught to every muhutu and at all levels.  Every muhutu must spread widely this ideology.  We shall consider a traitor any muhutu who will persecute his muhutu brother for having read, spread and taught this ideology.”

President Habyarimana’s speech to the MRND Congress of 28 April 1991 alluded to Hutu unity, saying: “It is imperative that the majority forge unity, so that they are able to ward off any attempt to return them into slavery.”[22] Again in September 1991; the President conveyed the same idea – that the opposition parties should form a coalition against the RPF. For Habyarimana and others who believed the same ideology, the “RPF” meant Tutsis.  When launching the Hutu extremist party, the Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), its President, Martin Bucyana, said he was convinced that “the unity of the bahutu will stop violence and will bring the excess ambitions of the minority Tutsi to their acceptable level”.[23]

The issue of Hutu Unity was the key.  The front cover of Kangura of May 1991 (Issue No. 16) read, “Hutus’ Unity is their only hope.” (Ubumwe bw’abahutu niyo mizero yabo.)  Referring to the party line that the Tutsis premeditated the extermination of the Hutus, the front cover of Kangura (Issue No. 17) bore the message “If it was not for the God of Rwanda who is always on the alert, the Hutu would be in great danger.”  Again, on the front cover of Kangura Issue No. 25, there was a portrait of President Habyarimana wearing a Bishop’s chasuble and mitre with the word “Ubumwe” (Unity).[24]  He said that his “Christian faith” had made many Rwandans consider him a “Catholic priest” and added, “The ungrateful should know that the Hutus would take action if he (President Habyarimana) removed his priestly clothes.”

Hutu extremists who, may be, wanted the extermination of the Tutsis earlier than April 1994, portrayed president Habyarimana as soft, with sympathy to Tutsis although he was not.  During the peak of genocide, in a long exhortation, the RTLM announcer Valerie Bemeriki said that what was going on was holy: She claimed that before the beginning of the war many Hutus believed that Tutsi were ‘disturbing’ them because of the support they had from President Habyarimana. And adds: “ And yet they killed the father for no good reason, for the Blessed Virgin Mary said recently that he was in fact a father, that he was our father, that she had received him… I will repeat the words of the Holy Mother; such as she said…”[25]

In January 1992, Kangura’s front cover featured a conversation between Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and her husband St. Joseph about how Hutu unity could be achieved.[26]  Not a single protest came from either the Catholic or Protestant Churches.  In 1991, priests from the diocese of Kabgayi had initiated a Pastoral Letter, which audaciously condemned the evil practices in the country, but they did not get sufficient support from their superiors.[27]

In the same year, a Catholic journal, Kinyamateka, published an article that challenged the Church to act or be declared “asleep” or “dead beat”.[28]  The Church remained silent.  By then, genocidal killings in Bugesera, Kibuye and Gisenyi were occurring with impunity.  In the same month, November 22, 1992, Dr. Leon Mugesera, the vice-president of the ruling party MRND in Gisenyi prefecture, overtly called for the extermination of Tutsi, for them to be sent to Ethiopia (their alleged country of origin) via the Nyabarongo River.[29]

It is difficult to describe the position taken by the Church just before and during the genocide. It is appropriate to take note of a declaration made by some “Christians” who met in London in 1996: “The church is sick.  The historical roots of this sickness lie in part with the “mother churches”.  She is facing the most serious crisis in her history.  The church has failed in her mission, and lost her credibility, particularly since the genocide.  She needs to repent before God and Rwandan society, and seek healing from God.”[30]

This diagnosis offers a good summary of the situation.  The Church lacks a sense of remorse and therefore cannot repent; hence its active involvement in the last stage of genocide – denial. At the time when the Church’s voice was needed most, its authorities abided by the Commandment to maintain Hutu “unity” in order to fight the common “enemy”.  Since October 1990, the church had employed the official language of hate propagated by the government.  The minor difference was in the medium of communication.  While the government used national radio and other print media, the Catholic Church made use of Pastoral Letters.

The writings of the Catholic bishops just after 1 October 1990 read like an official text from the state house publishing house.  After the attack by the RPF, President Habyarimana continually referred to them as “aggressors” or “assailants”. The official media followed suit.  The French fortnightly, La Relève, commented: “…During the morning of October 1st, 1990, Rwanda was attacked by assailants including Rwandan refugees, members of the Ugandan army who rallied with Ugandan elements, members of this army.” [31]

In the Catholic bishops’ letter of 7 November 1990 entitled “Happy are the artisans of peace, for they will be called Sons of God,”[32]. The same words were used, with some emphasis to confirm that the President had spoken nothing but the truth in his speech on 5 October 1990.  But that was not the only similarity.  The President had also said: “Aggression against our country is not only of military nature.  It also rests on international media manipulation and disinformation…we were surprised by the violent manipulations, being prepared, a long time ago, as we know now, by certain media from the West and not of the least minimal.  Our country is still being subjected to attacks and calumnies, to systematic lies, that we can only qualify as diabolic in nature.”[33]   And in their letter, the bishops said: “In these difficult times, it is our duty to remain in solidarity for the defence of the truth.  False information and rumours and libel, and lies, have taken place in Rwanda (…) We strongly deplore disinformation, cleverly and maliciously organized by those who have attacked Rwanda on certain facts, and events, as some of the media have reverberated.”

Remaining in solidarity with the government that planned genocide was not limited to speeches in the name of defending “the truth”.  The “comité de contacts”, bringing Catholics and Protestants together, was created as a messenger of the government.  This ecumenical movement is hailed in several documents as proof that “the church did something” during the genocide.  Fr. Ngomanzungu recently dedicated almost a whole book to this committee.[34]  His publication exhibits the failures and complicity of an institution he is trying to defend.

On 2March 1993, a delegation of the “Comité de contacts” met the RPF at the Papal envoy’s residence in Bujumbura, Burundi.  The aim was for the representative Church leaders to discuss with the RPF ways and means of bringing the collapsed peace process back on track.  Deliberations centred on the circumstances that had led the RPF to attack the government forces on 8 February that year, and what could be done to reverse the trend.  This twelve-hour meeting followed another that had brought together the RPF and the four opposition parties.  In the latter meeting, it had been agreed that: “Despite the content of the ceasefire accord concluded between the Rwandese Government and RPF on 12July 1992, the blood of innocent persons continues to be shed in all regions of Bugesera, Ruhengeri, Gisenyi and Kibuye.  This organised terrorism, which has totally paralysed the government, has been transformed into a real genocide which has shocked and revolted the universal consciousness and which constitutes a serious violation of the cease-fire accord.”[35]

Despite explanations and requests to the bishops at least to condemn what was happening, there was no positive response.  With the exception of Bishop Alexis Birindabagabo of the Anglican Church, who proposed that there had to be a statement to condemn the killings that were by then common knowledge, others remained indifferent.  It is disquieting to read that in that meeting, Bishop Augustin Misago of the Diocese of Gikongoro said that the death of Tutsis was not enough reason to justify the usurpation of power.[36] Misago’s comments in fact give the impression of a racist without scruple, who attached no value to the life of Tutsis.  He remained committed to the Hutu rather than to God’s commandment. During the genocide, he refused to hide any Tutsi, for “lack of space” in his bishopric.[37]  Except for Bishop Birindabagabo, this “comité de contacts” whose president was Bishop Thaddee Nsengiyumva of Kabgayi, remained loyal to the regime that committed genocide.  Their statements, available today in the publications of Father Joseph Ngomanzungu, are a testament to the team’s sympathy with the perpetrators of genocide – before, during and after the genocide.

Like Archbishop Perraudin, Bishop Focas Nikwigize of Ruhengeri was unequivocal in supporting the ideology of genocide.  While in exile in Goma, Zaire, he told a Belgian newspaper, “The Batutsi would like to restore their power and to reduce the Bahutu to slaves!  Their objective was to take Kigali by force, whatever the cost; not to share power, but to govern.  In order to fulfil this objective they used two sorts of weapons: their guns, which came from Europe, and their women.  They gave their women to Europeans and so remained in a strong alliance with them.  That is how bad they are!  A Muhutu is simple and right but a Mututsi is cunning and hypocritical.  They seem fine, polite and charming, but when the time comes, they force themselves on you.  A Mututsi is deeply bad, not because of her education, but because of her nature.” [38]

The above statement bears witness to the racist views of this priest.  Considering a people as naturally bad is similar to the explanation used by the Nazis to justify the extermination of Jews in order to maintain the purity of the Aryan race.  Bishop Nikwigize continues: “What happened in 1994 was something very human.  When someone attacks you, you have to defend yourself.  In such a situation, you forget that you are a Christian; you are first a human being.” [39]

There has been no condemnation of Bishop Nikwigize’s denial and endorsement of the genocide from the Church hierarchy as a whole, nor has there been admonition from any individual Bishop.  Since ‘silence implies consent’, one might rightly say that the Church leaders who have said nothing have espoused Nikwigize’s ideas.  It was all more disquieting that the justification of the genocide came from a senior Church leader whose influence was great among refugees.

Besides the writings of Fr. Ngomanzungu’s, there is a letter written by an interdenominational group called ‘Representatives of the Church of Christ’ in Katale Camp, in former Zaire.  Written on 10 November 1995, the letter was full of praise of the Church and condemnation of the RPF, which was accused of all the crimes committed in 1994.  The letter says that during the “war” and “tragedy”, the church did not cease to appeal to “the people to live in love, harmony, and mutual respect, despite menaces from the RPF and its supporters who aimed at taking power by force to the point when they started eliminating politicians who did not share their opinion.” The word genocide does not appear in the letter.[40]

The letter’s signatories are Rev. Archdeacon Canon Charles Samson Muzungu and Rev. Archdeacon Alphonse Barasebwa of the Episcopal Church of Rwanda, Father Jean Baptiste Rwamayanja of the Roman Catholic Church, Rev. Paulin Nkezabera and Rev. Simon Pierre Bimenyimana of the Baptist churches association in Rwanda, Pastor Jonas Barame of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Rev. Innocent Mukumira of the “Communauté des Eglises de Dieu en Afrique Centrale au Rwanda”, Rev. Joël Nkeramihigo of the “Eglise biblique de la vie profonde au Rwanda,” Rev. Joseph Habineza of the Pentecostal Churches Association in Rwanda, Rev. Uziel Nkenyereye of the Evangelical Churches Community in Rwanda and Daniel Mugema, an evangelist in the Free Methodist Church in Rwanda.

On the role of the Church in Rwandan society, the letter’s authors say that the missionaries’ presence was considerably felt in “the educational and socio-cultural sectors” without discrimination.  Here, they add, the church accomplished its mission in the light of the gospel, appealing to the people to live in brotherhood, love and trust.  On the Church and politics, they claim, the Church never failed in its mission of love and truth at the “political level” until the “murderous and devastating invasion of the RPF in 1990.”  It is true that the Church had built more schools than any other institution, including the government.  But, it was in these very schools that the hate ideology was taught.

Fr. Rwamayanja, one of the letter’s signatories, was also among the twenty-nine Rwandan Catholic priests who, from Goma, Zaire, wrote a letter to the Pope in August 1994 demanding that the Rwandan government should allow all refugees home and then hold a referendum to determine the country’s political future.[41]   The authors of this letter had no good programme for the country.  All they wanted was to hold in contempt the Pope’s acknowledgment of the genocide.  As early as 15 May 1994, the Pope had declared that the massacres in Rwanda were indeed genocide.[42]

The priests wrote to the Pope: “Everybody knows, except those who do not wish to know or understand it, that the massacres which took place in Rwanda are the result of the provocation of the Rwandese people by the RPF.”  These priests, contaminated by the genocidal ideology, placed His Holiness the Pope in the category of ‘those who did not wish to know’ to cover up their own shortcomings and those of the government they served.

Amongst the signatories of that letter, there was also a vicar general from the diocese of Ruhengeri, Monsignor Simon Habyarimana, who was clear-cut in denying the genocide.  In early 1995, from his residence, room 119, in the Major seminary of Buhimba, a few kilometres from Goma, he was asked what he thought about the genocide.  For him, it was simply RPF propaganda to mould international opinion and the Tutsi had perished because of “la colère populaire” – meaning “popular anger” following the death of president Habyarimana.  This is a view shared by many genocide deniers.  As if giving the position of the Church, Monsignor Habyarimana said: “There may be talk of a genocide of Tutsis.  It was not so, it wasn’t deliberate… what you had was a hidden genocide of Hutus.”[43] While in Rome he keeps on reinforcing a hate discourse to justify his stay in exile. “The plan of present government of Rwanda is to destroy the Hutu intelligentsia, to get rid of people who are educated. Clearly, they want to eliminate us.”[44]  When he says the “present government” he refers to the government they identify with Tutsis.

Almost seven years later, Fr. Serge still held the same views of the priests in Goma when he appeared as witnesses before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Desouter replicated the words of the so-called ‘Church of Christ’ The Church will continue to play its role of witness, to give the truth…” Fr. Desouter, an influential White Father and a known genocide denier,[45] had gone to Arusha, Tanzania, to testify for Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and his son Gerard Ntakirutimana.  The two suspects were found guilty and convicted by the tribunal for genocide and related crimes.

Desouter told the ICTR that the “real” problem in Rwanda had nothing to do with ethnic hatred.  “The invasion of 1990 [by the RPF] was a catastrophe for two reasons.  The ethnic aspect was introduced into the politics of Rwanda and weapons were also introduced… the fight for power by extremists on both sides is what destroyed Rwanda.”  He also commented that after the death of Burundi’s President Melchior Ndadaye, you could not trust Tutsis.” [46]

Fr. Desouter, who was at one time accused of being a racist and a revisionist by a Catholic journal, Kinyamateka[47] publicly states his dislike for the idea of making Rwanda for Rwandans, rather than for Hutus, Tutsis and Twa.  In a paper entitled “The usurpation of the term genocide,” published in March 2002, Desouter says, “Denial of ethnic character often serves to establish a sordid agenda… Replacing a majority regime with a minority regime that is even more intolerant and cruel resolves nothing.”[48]

In that paper, Desouter insists that his congregation is more knowledgeable, that others who have analysed and tried to be part of solutions to Rwandan problems are simplistic and base their judgment on conventional wisdom.  In his view, it is the missionaries “who have a better understanding of the reality of the situation, of the culture and the local language”.[49] In 1996, Father Desouter, then president of the Committee of Belgian Missionary Institutions, claimed, like Monsignor Habyarimana, that he did not know if the genocide of the Tutsi was planned.  And commenting on the estimate death toll, he said: “[T] hey talk about a million dead Tutsis… There have never been that many Tutsis in Rwanda.”[50]  This is the language often used by many genocidaires and apologists, who play about with victim numbers to blur the criminal act.

Accepting failure is a virtue.  Even so, it is difficult for institutions like the Catholic Church that are known to command respect world wide – above all when such institutions, have been party to policies of racial discrimination and genocide.  The Church decided to adopt silence and slander as defence mechanisms.  The question is why the Vatican has accepted or tolerated such tendencies.

The call for remorse and repentance still seems unnecessary and problematical for the Catholic Church.  In March 1996, Pope John Paul II 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.”[51]

Had this been accepted and done, it would have helped to end a culture of impunity that has characterised Rwanda for more than thirty-five years.  This could have been an established warning to anyone who harboured the archaic racist ideology.  It could have acted as a deterrent to foreign mentors, warning that continuation of such politics contravenes the principle of natural justice and is liable to be punished by law.  Thirdly, it offers the only premises on which durable reconciliation; rehabilitation and reconstruction could take place or be cemented.

In April 2001 a magazine called Fête & Saison published by Aide à l’Eglise en Détresse (AED), a powerful Catholic organisation[52] specified the countries in the world where the Church was persecuted.  On a world map, a number of countries were marked in red, including Rwanda, Afghanistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, etc… implying that somehow the government in Kigali was no different from that of the Talibans!  In that fund-raising advert, AED called for a minute’s silence on 10 April,in memory of martyrs and Christians under persecution.  Incidentally this is also the time when Rwandan genocide survivors mourn their murdered relatives and remember their darkest days of their lives.

The hostile propaganda against the Government of Rwanda started immediately after the genocide.  Papal envoys in Kigali, the lobby group of White Fathers and other church organisations, like the MISNA News Agency, went so far as accusing Rwanda of persecuting the Church.[53] They were well aware that the Church was not persecuted, but they were trying to avoid the repugnant facts about the failures of their institution.  Far from being persecuted, the Church was being challenged over its responsibility.

In 1999, Bishop Augustine Misago was arrested and subsequently tried for the crime of genocide.  After some months, a court in Kigali acquitted him – for lack of evidence, not as the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Salvatore Penacchio claims, that Misago was innocent.[54]  On several occasions Misago told the press that through him the Government was targeting the Church.[55]  Cardinal Josef Tomko, one of the Pope’s close lieutenants, also said that the Church was “targeted” in the trial, but the Church was not afraid – “welcoming even the destiny of martyrdom”.[56]  Both concocted such distortions that were disseminated with impunity by the Vatican’s propaganda machine.

The protection of Bishop Misago was not the Church’s only move to shield it from the arm of the law.  The most common move was to facilitate the departure of the accused to foreign countries.  Others include Fr. Munyeshyaka, who is in one of the Parishes in France,[57] Monsignor Simon Habyarimana, living in Rome, and many others who are fugitives around the world. On many occasions, whenever a member of the clergy was arrested and imprisoned, the Church alleged that they were innocent without any credible proof.[58] In Obstruction of Justice: The Nuns of Sovu in Belgium (African Rights, February 2000) clergymen are among those accused of trying to cover up crimes committed by the two nuns, Sr. Julienne Kizito and Sr. Gertrude Mukangango, who were found guilty of genocide and related crimes, and convicted by a Belgian tribunal.

Given their moral authority and role as educators of society’s sense of right and wrong, Church leaders would commit Christians to a genuine path of repentance, if they themselves recognised the role played by the Church in contributing to divisions and conflicts in Rwandan society.  After repentance, the Church could then preach reconciliation.

On 20 June 1994, a Rwandan radio announcer, Kantano Habimana of Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM), called upon his listeners to join him in singing a song praising genocide.  “Friends, let us rejoice…All Inkotanyi have perished…Friends, let us rejoice-God is fair.”  On 2 July, the same announcer was not only praising genocide, but also using God’s name to justify it.  “Let us rejoice: the “Inkotanyi” have been exterminated!  Oh dear friends, let us rejoice, God is equitable… The Good Lord is really equitable.  These evildoers, these terrorists, these people with suicidal tendencies will end up being exterminated… In any case, let us stand firm and exterminate them, so that our children and grandchildren do not hear the word “Inkotanyi” ever again.”[59]

Soon after the genocide, Protestant or affiliated Churches recognized and confessed their collusion with the powers that carried out the genocide, their silence and the involvement of their members in the massacres.  The Catholic Church did not do this immediately, even though some of its leaders spoke out as individuals.  It was only at Christmas 1995 that the Rwandan Episcopal Conference, officially but vaguely, acknowledged that there had been genocide – more than a year after the Pope and international community had acknowledged it.  In February 2001, a confession of collective accountability was formulated in nebulous language.  Since then, as Rutayisire says, investigations conducted in Catholic communities have never ceased to show the existence of revisionist tendencies among them.[60]


I chose to write about the Catholic Church and the genocide in Rwanda because it is the only institution involved in all the stages of genocide.  As a layperson, it is astounding to hear about the “love, truth and trust” that the church has achieved in a country where genocide took more than a million lives in just a hundred days, and to see the institution protecting instead of punishing, or at least denouncing its workers who are accused of genocide.

There is no doubt that Church leaders have had ties with the political power throughout the history of Rwanda.  The Church was also involved in the policy of ethnic hatred.  In order to succeed in its mission of uniting people, it must now change its vision on the ethnic issue.  If all Christians belong to the same family of God whose head is Jesus Christ, the message has to prevail that there are no more Hutu, Twa, and Tutsi – but simply Rwandans.  The Church should emulate St. Paul who says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all you are one in Christ.” (Gal 3: 28)

When the sexual abuse scandal by Roman Catholic priests hit the headlines in 2002, Pope John Paul II issued a very strong statement: “As priests, we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of evil at work in the world…”[61] It was effective.  Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston (USA) was forced to resign because of how he mishandled the cases of priests in his diocese who had been accused of paedophilia.[62]

And that is not the only recent time that Church leaders have taken strong positions.  In April 2002, Bishop Olivier de Berranger of France accused Jean Marie Le Pen of being “the heir to a totalitarian and anti-Christian” tradition. [63]   Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia faced excommunication for misbehaviour according to the Church rules.  Paradoxically, Rwandan priests accused of genocide and related crimes still celebrate masses in Rome, and in countries like France, where priests are infuriated by Le Pen’s racist rhetoric.

Church leadership should be on the side of the victims and justice rather than that of genocide perpetrators and deniers.  The Church must reconsider this illogicality and recognise genocide as the worst crime, remembering what Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his essay on “The Church and the Jewish Question” in April 1933.   As he wrote, one way in which churches could fight political injustices was to question state injustices and call the state to responsibility; another was to to help the victims of injustice, whether they were church members or not.  To bring and end to the machinery of injustice, he said, the Church was obliged not only to help the victims who had fallen under the wheel, but also to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself.[64]

Since justice is an unavoidable integral element of the process of reconciliation, the Church should be among those asking for the perpetrators to be judged.  If the Church contributes to the process of justice, unity can be re-established among Rwandans, in general, and among Christians, in particular.  It is the only way that the Church can restore its credibility, and hence be a witness to truth and help the state to save Rwanda from future suffering and bloodshed.

* This article was published in a book ‘Genocide in Rwanda: Complicity of the Churches?’ (2004) Quotes from reviews and contributors read http://www.paragonhouse.com/product.php?productid=327




















[1] Kinyamateka, No. 1614, January 2003, pg. 6 (A Journal owned by the Rwanda Episcopal Conference.)

[2] Paul Rutayisire, La Christianisation du Rwanda (1900-1945)-Editions Universtaire Fribourg, 1987 p.321-346

[3] Ibidem p.328-333

[4] Ibidem p.333-336

[5] Paul Rutayisire, “Silence et compromissions de la hierarchie de l’Eglise Catholique du Rwanda”, in Au Coeur de l’Afrique, No 2-3, 1995 pp.427

[6] P. Rutayisire, La Christianisation du Rwanda, op.cit, pp.167-190

[7] P. Rutayisire, “Silence et compromissions …op.cit pp.428

[8] Venuste Linguyeneza, LETTRE PASTORALES ET AUTRE DECLARATIONS DES EVEQUES CATHOLIQUES DU RWANDA 1956-1962, Waterloo February 2001, pp. 159-162.

[9] Linguyeneza pp.190-191

[10] Monseigneur Aloys Bigirumwami, Memorandum Remis a la Mission de Visite de l’ONU Concernant la Tragique Situation Actuelle du Rwanda. Nyundo, 15 Mars 1960.

[11] Linguyeneza pp. 236-241

[12] Perraudin became Archbishop of Kabgayi on 1 May 1960.

[13] Along with Father Ernotte, Bishop Perraudin was also behind the creation of the Movement Social Muhutu (Hutu Social Movement) on 1 May 1957.  Its chairman was Grégoire Kayibanda who was also head of the Legion of Mary.  The same clique drafted the Manifeste de Bahutu (Hutu Manifesto) in the same year.

[14] Published by Edition Saint Augustin, Case postale 51 CH-1890 Saint-Maurice February 2003 pp. 277.

[15] Vincent Nsengiyumva was ordained as a priest on June 18, 1966-consecrated as Bishop of Nyundo diocese on May 3, 1976 and became the Archbishop of metropolitan Kigali on June 20 the same year. See JUBILE DE 100 ANS D’EVANGELISATION AU RWANDA 1900-2000: 83 ANS DE SACERDOCE AU RWANDA 1917-2000 pp. 64

[16] I do have a copy of this letter, in French, which is unpublished. Partly it reads: “After the defeat of the counter-revolutionaries, the ‘inyenzi’, one would have thought that reasonable people, consecrated to God’s service, would bow down before the irreversible reality of the victory of the people. Far from it, because they are still nurturing bitter regrets or still hoping for revenge,”…. The Hutu seems to have fallen asleep on the laurels of victory while the Tutsi is working very hard in order to again become master of events. How long can we allow our dear [Tutsi] brothers to make fools of us and to ignore us and the people from which we are descended?” Asked by a journalist, Chris McGreal, on what he thought about the letter Havugimana said it without any sense of contrition that it  “was written in the context of what existed then …since it had a relevance at the time…” He remained unremorseful. Read Shameful Silence of the Rwandan Church : The Guardian, August 28, 1999


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