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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Killings create a rift among Catholics

As thousands sought safety during the massacres, dozens of clergy aided the slaughter.

Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide
Part 3: September 8, 1998

The remains of genocide victims lie in a school outside Mwulire, Rwanda.  (Eric Mencher / Inquirer)

KIGALI, Rwanda - During the first days of the genocide in 1994, the Rev. Modeste Mungwarareba hid in the sacristy of his Roman Catholic church in Butare, surviving on prayer and communion wafers.

After his food and water ran out, Father Mungwarareba moved stealthily at night to avoid the marauding bands of Hutu militiamen who were hunting for Tutsis like him. One evening he was hiding above the convent's ceiling panels when the interhamwe militiamen broke down a door and killed several nuns and Tutsi refugees.

Between the wails of the victims and the war cries of the interhamwe, Mr. Mungwarareba recognized a voice among the killers - a Hutu priest from his parish who helped the militia by identifying Tutsis.

``To me, it was a mystery," Father Mungwarareba said. ``I could not understand how that priest could join the spirit of the militia."

But there were others. The Hutu priest was not the only clergy to collaborate with the architects of Rwanda's mass murder.

While tens of thousands of Catholics died in the genocide, including hundreds of Tutsi priests and nuns, dozens of other clergy willingly took sides and joined the slaughter, according to the London-based human-rights group African Rights.

Some priests assisted passively by refusing to help Tutsi parishioners or clergy. Some openly encouraged the killers. Others promised parishioners safe havens at churches, which were then attacked in some of the genocide's most notorious massacres, the chapels littered with mutilated corpses and spilled blood in what African Rights called a ``dreadful parody" of the communion ritual.

A few priests manned roadblocks where Tutsis were arrested. Some took up weapons against Tutsis. One former military chaplain who helped train militiamen wore a gun and a crucifix when he greeted Pope John Paul II's representative during the genocide. Two other priests were sentenced to death in Rwanda this year for paying workers to bulldoze their church in Nyange, killing 2,000 Tutsis locked inside.

To some survivors, the Catholic Church's responsibility went beyond the participation of a few wayward priests. They allege that anti-Tutsi sentiment was tacitly sanctioned by the church hierarchy, which had close links with the Hutu government that orchestrated the genocide.

The horrifying vision of servants of God abandoning their vows and joining in wholesale slaughter is one of the most haunting memories of the genocide. The churches of Rwanda, where three-fourths of the population is Christian, have been devastated by accusations that some pastors ultimately were more devoted to ethnicity than to Christianity.

``In humanity, there is sin, so it is not surprising to find it in pastors," said Amon Rugelinyange, president of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Rwanda, who lost his wife, three children and eight grandchildren in the genocide.

The church leadership at first downplayed the gravity of the genocide, in which at least half a million people died. After the genocide, the church failed to purge its ranks of clergy, most of them Hutus, who were implicated in the killing. It has instead helped organize their legal defense.

The Pope has implored those who sinned in the genocide to confess, and the Rwandan church hierarchy has urged victims to forgive. But survivors say the church has not confronted the crucial issues - how the church helped foster ethnic division in the country and how the Christian message of love was overwhelmed by the message of ethnic hatred.

``The country is still divided," Father Mungwarareba said. ``For me, you can't make reconciliation with God without first making reconciliation with your friends and neighbors."

The unresolved split in the Catholic Church is much like the rift that still cleaves Rwanda four years after the genocide. Although a new Tutsi-led government has attempted to diffuse ethnic differences - identity cards no longer indicate a person's ethnicity, and the official policy is to discourage people from making ethnic characterizations - tensions appear to be on the rise.

It wasn't only members of the Catholic Church who were involved in the 1994 genocide. Clergy from almost every denomination have been implicated.

But 60 percent of the nation identifies itself as Catholic; Rwanda is the most Catholic of all African countries. And the church was closely tied to the Hutu government, which had characterized minority Tutsis as ``invaders" since Hutus seized power in 1959.

``The Catholic Church has, therefore, a special responsibility to the victims of the genocide," the director of African Rights, Rayiya Omaar, said in an open letter to the Pope this year. ``In our view, this has yet to be acknowledged."

Some clergy have attempted to prod the bishops to openly examine the church's close relationship with the old government. It was so close that Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva, a Hutu who headed the church in Rwanda for 21 years, was a member of the central committee of the ruling Hutu political party for most of his tenure. The archbishop was assassinated by Tutsi rebels in 1994.

At the time of the 1994 genocide, about half of Rwanda's priests were Tutsi. But it was widely recognized that the archbishop designated Hutus for the most powerful and prestigious church positions.

Father Mungwarareba is among a group of Tutsi and Hutu clerics who have attempted to persuade the church to reevaluate its mission and its methods in Rwanda.

After the genocide, the clerics formed the Commission for the Relaunch of Pastoral Activities in the Diocese of Butare, which advocated changing the method of prayer because deeply troubled parishioners were so distressed about attending services with one another. Rather than holding celebratory Mass, the committee suggested, Catholics should meditate about the Gospel.

The group also published a series of tracts examining the genocide and the church's role during the period.

But the Rwandan Bishop's Council disapproved of their activities. ``The priests on the commission were reassigned throughout the country," said Father Mungwarareba, who was made secretary general of the Catholic Conference of Rwanda in the capital, Kigali. ``So the commission doesn't exist any more, but its spirit lives on."

The tension within the church bubbled up again this year when the Pope implored the government to halt plans for public executions of 20 people convicted of genocide.

Survivors complained that the church was showing more concern for the perpetrators of genocide than the victims. Much of the anger was directed at the Pope's representative in Kigali, Msgr. Juliusz Janusz, who has urged the clergy to close ranks and look for witnesses to help defend priests accused of genocide.

In April, a group of 35 Catholic lecturers and students at the National University of Rwanda wrote a public letter criticizing the papal nuncio's position and the ``stubborn refusal of the Catholic church to seek forgiveness of its responsibility in the preparation and the execution of the genocide of the Tutsis."

The letter from the academics was followed by a public call to the Pope from African Rights, which asked the Vatican to investigate the role of church leaders in the genocide much as it has recently studied the church's activities during the Holocaust and expressed sorrow at its failings.

African Rights listed three dozen priests and nuns allegedly involved in the genocide, including several who were accused of direct involvement and were reassigned to parishes in Europe or other parts of Africa.

The list included the current archbishop, Thadee Ntininyurwa, who as bishop of Cyangugu was largely silent during the massacres in his diocese. African Rights said Tutsi priests complained that the bishop prevented them from escaping to Zaire. Yet a few months later, when a rebel Tutsi army was about to conquer the Hutu government, he gave church vehicles to Hutu priests to allow them to escape, African Rights said.

``By not responding to the allegations, the church is betraying both the memory of the Catholic clergy who were killed and undermining the many Catholic priests, brothers and nuns who took no part in the killings," African Rights said in its letter to the Pope. Many members of the clergy heroically protected their neighbors, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.

The church's response largely has been silence. Archbishop Ntininyurwa and Msgr. Janusz, the papal nuncio, declined to be interviewed. A papal spokesman said the Vatican would have no comment on the African Rights letter.

In December 1996, responding to allegations of involvement of Catholic clergy in the genocide, the Pope said the church ``cannot be held responsible for the misdeeds of its members who have acted against evangelical law."

The Tutsis and the Hutus have lived in mutual suspicion for several hundred years, but their rivalry intensified after Belgian colonialists endowed Tutsis with responsibility for administering the territory. The minority Tutsis reserved for themselves such privileges as better education and more economic power.

In 1959, as Rwanda approached independence, the Hutus rose up and ousted the Tutsi leaders and sanctioned an ideology that held the Tutsis as ``foreign invaders."

Hutu regimes ran the country until 1994, when President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed and Hutu extremists launched a well-planned slaughter of the Tutsis they claimed were responsible.

Although outside Rwanda the massacres are largely viewed as the work of Hutu extremists, the prevailing view among Hutus was that the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front precipitated the slaughter by plotting its own massacre of Hutus. Many Hutus who participated in the genocide said they were merely killing Tutsis before the Tutsis had a chance to kill them.

``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 and of the harassment of the Rwandan people by the RPF," a group of exiled Hutu priests wrote to the Pope a few months after the genocide ended.

Father Mungwarareba, who lost most of his family during the genocide, said the church must reexamine why it kept silent as ethnic segregation developed under the Hutu government. Because of its silence, he said, the church shares some of the blame for the genocide.

``It was similar to Europe after the Second World War," he said. ``It's only 50 years after the war that the church recognizes its role. The main actors were dead by then. Here, we have the same actors and they're still alive."

Father Mungwarareba believes much of the church's failure to prevent evil from prevailing in 1994 has to do with the way Christianity was introduced to Rwanda and other African countries.

White missionaries, though they may have been preaching the Gospel, were largely seen as symbols of power and privilege. They brought schools and medicine to those who joined the church.

``The importance of Jesus' methods were hidden," Father Mungwarareba said. ``What people saw in Jesus were the symbols of power.

``It was not like St. Peter, a fisherman in Galilee. He had a new hope to give to people. The situation in Rwanda is that the transference of Christianity was a transfer of power. You can't produce real apostles."

Until the church and its members are able to reconcile the divisions and reinforce the faith, Father Mungwarareba said, he has little hope for his country.

``When somebody is not able to recognize his fault," he said, ``you think he is capable of killing again."

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