Like many Rwandans – upwards of sixty per cent before the 1994 genocide – I was brought up Catholic. As a child I looked forward to going to mass. Going to Church was like an outing for the entire family.
One met up with friends one had last seen at school on the Friday before, except that here one could socialise unconstrained by school discipline. It was a fun social outing with a bit of spirituality thrown in. Even as a child the Church pervaded through my life. One might say that this was so even before I was born, since my mother and father first set eyes on each other on their way to and from Mass. My experience is far from unique. Many Rwandans will recognise it in their own lives.
However, not every remembrance associated with the Church was so idyllic. I grew up with an image in my mind’s eye of a white-robed Belgian priest, pistol holder attached to a dark belt around his waist, striding to and fro among killers and victims at his feet, directing operations. This image was not related to anything I had seen or even something I had read. It was a construction from memories taken in, almost by osmosis as heard from my parents and their friends. This was a regular topic of conversation as they recounted their experiences of what I would call the first Rwandan genocide of 1959. The image of a priest directing operations as the killers went about their "work" as they called it then, as in 1994, was more symbolic and accurate than my child self could have known.
The first genocide was perpetrated in a Rwanda where the Catholic Church was arguably the most powerful and influential institution. The Rwandan monarchy had been ousted from its pre-eminent position by the colonial power, Belgium, which for all intents and purposes ruled the country, with the Church in the vanguard for the secular authority. Those Rwandans through whom Belgium intended to influence the course of the Rwandan state were creatures of the Church. They knelt when bidden and if the Church had commanded them to jump, their collective response would have been, how high?
For Gregoire Kayibanda, the first head of state after the overthrow of the Monarchy, the Presidency was a promotion from his position as Secretary to the then Archbishop of Rwanda. There is no doubting that when killings begun, a word or two from the Church hierarchy would have brought them to a halt. Indeed it is fair to say that the Church would have been well apprised of what was about to take place, long before the first machete landed on a single victim. By the end over ten thousand had been hacked to death and hundreds of thousands were condemned to a life as refugees, scattered in neighbouring countries and beyond. For the Church as for the Interahamwe and the Rwandan state that directed them, 1994, was in many ways a repeat performance of those earlier massacres of 1959.
My received memory of the murderous priest is just one in a plethora of such images. I also remember hearing of priests calming parishioners who had flocked into their churches confident of finding sanctuary within. The priests offered them the last rights, before handing them over to those earlier Interahamwe, literally like lambs to the slaughter. Those priests had two choices, both easily accomplished: go outside and send the killers away and remind them of the teachings of Christ, or deliver their intended victims to them. They chose the latter course. Following the massacres of 1959 the Church formally endorsed the purge of Batutsi from schools, colleges and every other walk of life where an individual can be said to prosper.
In 1994 the Catholic Church had another chance to exercise the same choice it had in 1959: practice what it preached, or yet again, pay lip service to Christ’s message, while not only standing firmly behind the genocidal regime of Juvenal Habyarimana, but actually standing by while several of its priests, nuns, not to say followers turned Rwanda into a scene that would make any vision of hell seem benign. The entire world knows the choice it took, and Rwandans are forever marked by that choice. Today for the third time the Catholic Church has a further choice: it can continue to evade responsibility with self serving platitudes or it can look to its own teachings and realise what is self evident to the meanest intelligence, that in Rwanda at least, the Roman Catholic Church’s very soul is in jeopardy. And if one may paraphrase the bible, what does the Church hope to gain, if it losses its soul.
It is not over stating the case to say that the Catholic Church in Rwanda has blood on its hands. For many of it priests and nuns, this is literally true. Two years after the genocide a human rights group wrote to the then Pope, "One is struck by the persistent wish to exonerate the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the institution at any price…"
In America George W Bush welcomed the Pope’s message on abortion, homosexual marriages, stem cell research and other issues where the conservative right meet religious teaching. Addressing such issues the Pope has reminded us, "there is right and wrong in life…moral relativism has a danger of undermining the capacity to have more hopeful and free societies…" He asserts that society needs religious values and that these values are not negotiable. He has talked about the respect for the dignity of man.
All well and good, except that judging by the example of Rwanda, the Catholic Church is itself in dire need of some religious values. Before the genocide four out of every five Rwandans followed the Catholic Church’s teaching. The Church still enjoyed much of the influence it had during colonial rule. The genocide was carefully planned, organised and the campaign to turn the entire population into killers was set in motion. The real question has long stopped being whether such an influential and powerful institution as the Catholic Church, with its near symbiotic relationship to the state knew about all of this, but to what extent it was party to it.
The Catholic Church continues to cling to the line that it cannot answer for the actions of individual priests, nuns and lay followers. Even if one were to blind oneself to the facts that show the Church’s collusion with the genocidal regime, the Catholic hierarchy would still have to answer how it could have stood silent in the face of such horror committed by its own followers. However the argument that the clergy acted as individuals is no more than a red herring. Most Rwandans know that at the hour of their direst need, the Catholic Church might as well have replaced the cross with a Machete as its symbol. After all twice in the last Century the Catholic Church in Rwanda chose to allay itself with the notorious "Hutu ten commandments" as written by the journalist Hassan Ngeze in 1992, in preference to those delivered by Moses. The eighth of Ngeze’s Ten Commandments prohibited any Muhutu from showing mercy to any Mututsi. The real question is where does the Church go from there? So far it has compounded the wrong by avoiding the question.
Vincent Gasana is a journalist of Rwanda origin and lives in Britain.