As 2016 receded into history, there was no indication of moderation in the debate over the Catholic Church’s role in Rwanda’s divisive politics.
All indications were that the Vatican would continue to be on the defensive during 2017 especially given that Kigali has upped ante against genocide fugitives.
The Catholic Church remains a refuge for a number of its priests accused of participation in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
The topic which for weeks dominated formal and informal discussions around the country culminated in President Paul Kagame wondering why the church found it difficult to express remorse. He was speaking during the 14th edition of the National Dialogue (Umushyikirano) in Kigali last month.
“I don’t understand why the Pope would apologise for sexual offences, whether it is in the US, Ireland or Australia, but cannot apologise for the role of the Church in the genocide that happened here,” President Kagame said.
With 2016 closing without compromise all eyes are on Vatican after the Rwandan government made it clear it expects an apology from the Pope.
Despite some lowering in the decibels, the church appears intransigent in the face of mounting pressure.
Bishop Philippe Rukamba, the spokesperson of the Conference of Rwandan Catholic Bishops said that an apology from the Vatican was “something that people can continue discussing” but maintained that the church would not apologise as an institution.
“There are cases in which the Pope has apologised like in the case of sexual offences, but he does not apologise in the name of the church. He rather does this for the priests who have gone against what the church preaches” Mr Rukamba said.
President Kagame, meanwhile has slightly lowered the standard of the requested apology compared with what his government has been asking for years that the church should offer a broader apology as an institution.
“I personally don’t view this apology as where someone will stand and say, I am apologising for the Catholic Church because it committed Genocide or ordered people to commit Genocide. This is not true.” President Kagame said.
“Even if it was apologising for the clergymen who committed genocide, why doesn’t he do it even here?” President Kagame asked.
Analysts say Rwanda’s demand is justifiable bearing in mind the famous “mea culpa” from Pope John Paul II in 1998 for “the inactivity and silence of many Catholics during the Holocaust.” They, however, caution that this might take a bit longer given that the latter was also issued 53 years after the event.
Some of the obstacles that analysts predict would prevent the church from issuing a fast and unambiguous apology is the fear of claims for reparations.
Nevertheless, the church also has interests in seeing the matter resolved because should the status quo remain, the Rwandan government will continue with the accusations; it will be trapped in a permanent position of unmitigated guilt that will deny it the legitimacy to express any critical view of government conduct.
Rwanda traces the association of the Catholic Church with the genocide ideology in the country back to 1957 when the famous “Manifesto of the Bahutu” was drafted.
According to Dr Jean Damascène Bizimana, the executive secretary of The National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide CNLG, the controversial manifesto — considered as the founding text of the genocide ideology — was the work of catholic missionaries, and it was “popularised in all the parishes of Rwanda by the church.”
Rwanda also blames the church for the alleged role played by the White Fathers in supporting former president Juvenal Habyarimana’s divisive policies after an offensive was conducted by the then rebel group RPF in 1990.
Deo Byanafashe, a retired history professor, recalls that the Roman Catholic Church has a historical link with the genocidal government, as well as accepting ethnic discrimination among Rwandans earlier in the century, which became the bedrock for genocide ideologies throughout the decades.
“The Catholic Church allied with the Belgian colonial masters to create ethnic tensions and classification of people who spoke one language. The institution is simply in denial, even when it allied with the government and offered the platform on which genocide became acceptable,” he said in an interview.
Another contentious point is the alleged church’s protection of some of its implicated clergymen despite their alleged roles in the genocide.
For example, in June this year, controversy arose after the diocese Kabgayi included Emmanuel Rukundo and Joseph Ndagijimana – who were convicted for committing genocide, on a list of priests that were celebrating 25 years of ministry. The names were later removed from the list after the government protested.
Mr Rukundo who was recently granted early release and Athanase Seromba were convicted by the ICTR while a dozen others were convicted by the traditional Gacaca courts.
Another priest, Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, continues to serve as a priest in France, even after being convicted for genocide in absentia by a Gacaca court in Rwanda.