Before 1994, a church or a mosque was presumed a sacred place, a sanctuary that would never be attacked by anyone. In fact when the Tutsi sought refuge in church during the 1959 and 1962 massacres, they were spared.
Likewise, at the height of the Genocide in 1994, the church was the first place people thought they would be protected from the marauding Interahamwe militia and government soldiers, as had been the case before, only they were wrong this time.
In 1994, the churches offered no protection; in fact, some priests fed their flock to the killers; churches became slaughterhouses.
In fact, some of the worst brutalities against the Tutsi were committed by religious leaders openly in their clerical garbs.
The killers cared less about the sanctity of the Holy Church; some believed that they didn’t share the same God with the Tutsis.
Churches like Nyarubuye, Nyange, Nyamata, Ntarama, Cyahinda, Nyange, Ngenda, Kibeho, Kaduha, Saint Andre and Saint Famille are permanent reminders that sanctity was not on the killers mind.
“Church was always presumed the safest place to hide since the 1959 killings and that’s exactly why we came to this church. We all thought nothing would happen to us,” said Ferdinand Rwakayigamba, a survivor from Nyarubuye Catholic Church in Kirehe District.
The church that sits on top of a hill was a killing ground in a three-day carnage that would leave nearly 40,000 people dead.
Nyarubuye was attacked between April 14 and 16, 1994.
Rwakayigamba says that things started falling apart when three of the five parish priests decided to abandon the crowd and fled to Tanzania.
The other two priests were taken away by the militias before the killings started.
Nyarubuye remains a clear example of how clerics abandoned their flock that had run to them for safety leaving them at the mercy of the killers.
Led by the then bourgmestre of Rusumo commune, Sylvestre Gacumbitsi, the Interahamwe, as soon as the priests were taken, reigned in on the refugees and started the massacre.
“I still think the priests could have done something had they not abandoned us. The killers had been lurking around the church but feared the priests, until they abandoned us,” said Rwakayigamba.
In the absence of the clerics, the Interahamwe exercised the most cruelty known to mankind. They established a rape joint in the nuns’ convent where women and girls were taken, raped then killed.
At Nyarubuye, it was not just murder but the genocide there was partly characterized with cannibalism.
Rwakayigamba says, “A notorious genocidaire, Daniel Rwamukama, who was nicknamed Simba, would kill Tutsi, extract their hearts and liver and roast them from a bakery at the church. He ate human flesh in broad day light,” said the survivor.
Reports indicate that Rwamukama committed suicide immediately after the genocide.
“I am a Catholic but since 1994 Genocide, I had vowed never to go to church. Terrible things happened at this church. Things that we can’t even describe; I only came back to church in 2006 after going through counselling but I no longer consider it safe,” Rwakayigamba said.
Leoncie Mukandayambaje has a permanent scar on her neck as a reminder that the Church is not the safest place it once was.
She was carrying her nine-month baby who was killed on her back.
“I was very much convinced that no one could kill me if I went to church but this was not the case. The church turned out to be the most dangerous place for any Tutsi to be during those days,” she said.
The massacre affected Mukandayambaje’s attitude towards church.
“My entire family died from this church. I only come here because it helps me feel closer to my family but it’s not a place I can go to on an ordinary day,” she said.
Some of those who took part in the church massacre have lived to regret their acts; they blame the church leaders and the then government for persuading them to kill their friends and neighbours in the church.
“The Tutsi thought we wouldn’t kill them in front of the priests which was indeed true. It was after the priests abandoned them that we killed them,” said 43-year old Sultan Byamana, who took part in the killings, for which he served up to 10 years in prison.
He says that although he served his sentence and implicated many others who took part in the killings, he lives with guilt over his actions.
“Since then, I wake up everyday with the memories of the Genocide, I now work tirelessly helping the survivors because I naturally owe them a lot more than I can ever afford,” said Byamana.
The horror that befell Nyarubuye and other churches is mostly blamed on bishops, priests, nuns and several other leaders who fuelled ethnic hatred among their congregation.
In some of the worst cases, we have priests who did not fear to bring the church structures down to kill the Tutsi therein.
A living example is Father Athanase Seromba, the vicar of Nyange Catholic Church in Ngororero District, who, using a grader, razed the church to the ground, killing 3,000 Tutsi.
Today, many churches have been turned into Genocide memorial sites where remains of hundreds of thousands of victims are kept.
These memorials are a silent indictment against many clergymen who were involved in the Genocide.
Although the clergy’s reputation has been tarnished by the Church’s complicity in the Genocide, religion remains the mainstay of many Rwandans’ lives.
Serving clerics say they have drawn lessons from the ugly past and churches have accepted that they have a responsibility to play in the reconstruction of the social fabric they helped destroy.
According to Bishop Nathan Gasatura, the head of the Anglican Church in Butare, a religious leader must be the moral compass in the communities they serve.
“They should act as the lighthouse to provide true guidance to people, this is a lesson we draw from our ugly past. We faced a situation where churches were deeply entrenched in politics with the prelate occupying top positions in political parties which is morally and ethically wrong.”
Gasatura was referring to, among others, Vincent Nsengiyumva, who was the Catholic Archbishop of Kigali, during the genocide.
Nsengiyumva was a member of the central executive committee of the MRND, a party that played the central role in the Genocide.
Gasatura proposed that a clear line should be drawn between the engagements of the Church and the government, saying the Church has a responsibility to help the government in supporting the needy steer clear from political ideologies that do not serve the interest of the Church.
“The Church has to act as a moral voice of society with a responsibility of advocating for unity, reconciliation and harmony among the people,” said Gasatura.
Gasatura says the church is fully responsible for the evil that befell the House of God, adding that the killings would have been prevented if the clergy had the will to stop them.
For Bishop Smaragde Mbonyintege of the Catholic Diocese of Kabgayi, the Church didn’t have the power to protect those that had sought sanctuary in the places of worship.
“People went to churches because they thought they would be safe but churches didn’t have the power to protect them. Clerics who took part in the killings were not serving the interest of the church as an institution and should be held accountable for their crimes,” said Mbonyintege.
He adds that the Catholic Church has for long embarked on counselling and uniting the people. “It is in our mandate to keep the society safe.”
Although no accurate census has been conducted, Islam has at different fora been commended for having a smaller percentage of followers who participated in the Genocide.
“During the Genocide, mankind lost value. This was against the social principle of protecting each other. In Islam our philosophy is, killing one person is as bad as killing the whole world. This is what we teach our followers everyday,” said Sheikh Ibrahim Kayitare, the Mufti of Rwanda.
However, we have some notorious Genocidaires who subscribed to Islam, notably Hassan Ngeze, the infamous editor of Kangura, a venomous vernacular paper known for its campaign to incite hatred and killings against the Tutsi.