Recently four officers of the Rwanda Defense Forces (RDF) were arrested and tried for having allegedly killed Catholic Clergymen in Kabwayi – Southern Province. Although the law must take its course, we should not lose sight of the context in which these killings were done.
The killings occurred at a time when the then Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) was fighting the genocidal regime of Juvenal Habyarimana. Many army officers had found their beloved ones slaughtered in cold blood in church premises at the hands of the very people they had run to for refuge – Catholic Clergymen and women.
These “men of God” were therefore victims of what may be seen as revenge killings. Although this in no way vindicates the army officers, it points to a much deeper parallel issue- the active involvement of the Catholic Church in the 1994 genocide.
During the 1994 Tutsi Genocide, thousands of Tutsis fled from the killers to churches, believing they would find sanctuary in the churches. Instead of finding refuge, they found themselves trapped in slaughter houses. The clergy gave them up to the merciless killers and in some instances even actively participated in the murders.
A number of catholic Bishops, Priests and Nuns have been tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, in Rwandan courts and in Belgium among other countries for actively participating in the Rwanda Genocide.
The participation of the Catholic Church in the Tutsi Genocide of 1994, deplorable as it is, was not altogether surprising because it had long been involved in divisive politics during colonial and post colonial Rwanda.
According to history, from the 1880s onwards, Belgian Roman Catholic missionaries from the Vatican’s ‘White Fathers Order’ increased their influence in Rwanda and started propagating the contemporary trendy Darwinian evolutionary and racial theories.
The Fathers used these to develop a bizarre racist theory to explain the relatively well-ordered society they found in Rwanda- the so-called ‘Hamitic hypothesis’. This theory advanced the claim that ‘civilized’ African societies, in this case the Tutsi, emanated from an invasion of ‘Ham-ites’ who originally settled in Ethiopia whereas the other ‘less civilised’ groups were natives of the land.
The Tutsi were therefore given increased ‘powers and privileges’. The influence of the white fathers order diminished as a new wave of young Papal missionaries came over from Belgian seminaries after World War Two. They brought with them ‘social justice’ theories that had been developed by the Vatican to promote Roman Catholic influence in third world counties.
Under the guise of these theories, these priests identified with the “oppressed Hutu majority”, took up their cause, and gradually forced the Tutsis to relinquish their positions of responsibility. As a result of this power shift, a Hutu uprising occurred in 1959 which led to the massacre of thousands of Tutsis and caused thousands more to flee to exile.
Genocide ideology continued to be propagated by both the church and the state over the years and this eventually culminated in the 1994 genocide. The genocide left a horrific legacy and in one of the most inexplicable events of history, the Catholic Church played a very active role in creating this legacy.
After the genocide, several Rwandan catholic churches were turned into genocide memorial sites; they are filled with the remains of people killed at these very churches during the genocide. These remains are the silent indictment of all the clergy that participated in the genocide.
The clergy’s complicity and involvement in the genocide tarnished their reputation and regrettably, to this day the Catholic Church has taken no responsibility for the crimes its members committed against the Rwandan people.
Although some religious groups have shown more willingness to speak openly on their role in the genocide, the Catholic Church has maintained silence on its role. When confronted with the fact that many parish priests and even some bishops had encouraged genocide, Pope John Paul II responded by saying, “The church cannot be held responsible for the guilt of its members that have acted against the evangelic law; they will be called to account for their own actions.”
Ironically, Pope Benedict XVI on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church has recently expressed deep regret for the paedophilic offences committed by some catholic priests. It is very perplexing that in light of this, there has been no forthcoming apology from the Catholic Church regarding the graver issue of its role in the genocide of the Tutsi. How much more should it regret and apologise for the murder of thousands of innocent people at the hands of its members?
Little wonder that many erstwhile Catholics have found solace in other faiths and are quitting the Catholic Church in their thousands. The Catholic Church needs to take courage and acknowledge its institutional complicity in the Rwandan genocide; in that way embrace the new outlook of reconciliation and building a society based on values.