Twenty years on, Catholic Church yet to apologise over genocide

Saturday May 03 2014

Pressure is mounting on the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy to take the bold step of apologising to Rwandans for its role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

While other churches have taken the initiative, the Catholic Church is yet to publically ask for forgiveness.

The Vatican paints the church as a victim not only of the mass killings – because priests and nuns were among the those slaughtered – but of persecution by Rwanda’s current government, which has jailed members of the clergy and accused the church leadership of having blood on its hands.

Two hundred or more priests and nuns, Tutsi and Hutu, were murdered during the genocide. Some died while courageously attempting to save lives or refusing to abandon their parishioners. But there were priests who murdered people; while some collaborated with the Interahamwe militia to massacre their own congregations, others pulled the trigger themselves.

Although Rwandans are known for being religious and have over the past 20 years continued to embrace the Catholic Church, a good number of Catholics have moved away from their religion of birth to seek solace in revival churches.

If not stretching the limits too far, Rwanda has witnessed the most unbelievable story of a what trauma the Catholic Church would have caused to some of its faithful who may have not overcome the past.


One of the most vivid example is disgraced musician Kizito Mihigo, a Catholic genocide survivor from Kibeho Diocese who used his church music tunes to sing about genocide but has now turned into “enemy of the state” facing charges of working with genocidal forces such as FDLR.

READ: The shocking tale of Kizito Mihigo

Twenty years have passed and the Vatican has maintained that while individual clergy were guilty of terrible crimes, the church as an institution bears no responsibility.

Pope Francis has taken a step in apologising to the world for the sexual abuse crimes committed during his conservative colleague Pope John Paul II’s tenure, whom he made a saint recently, but he has not had the courage to do the same to the church in Rwanda.

In his recent message to the Catholic Church in Rwanda for the 20th commemoration of the genocide, Pope Francis made some hope-bringing statements but slipped off the aspect of the need to apologise to Rwandans. He said that the Catholic Church in Rwanda needs to prioritise efforts of reconciliation and called on lay Catholics in Rwanda to play a major role of evangelisation and reconstruction of the church.

The Pope made the remarks on April 3 while addressing Rwandan bishops on their ad limina visits in Rome, where he also acknowledged the suffering of Rwandans during the genocide.

Associated with national mourning

“I associate myself profoundly with the national mourning,” Pope Francis said. “Twenty years after those tragic events, reconciliation and the healing of wounds remain, certainly, the priority of the Church in Rwanda.”

He said that the Church has her place in the reconstruction of a reconciled Rwandan society, with all the dynamism of its faith and of Christian hope and called for genuine forgiveness and reconciliation among Rwandans.

“The forgiveness of offences and genuine reconciliation, which might seem impossible from a human view after so much suffering, are nevertheless a gift that it is possible to receive from Christ, with faith and prayer, even if the path is long and calls for patience, mutual respect and dialogue,” he said.

Contrary to the Pope’s view of looking at the future of the church, Bishop John Rucyahana, of the Rwanda Anglican Church and one of the most influential Rwandan bishops today, says all faiths should be held accountable for their silence during the genocide.

Bishop Rucyahana said: “It is not enough to teach reconciliation when the church leaders themselves cannot come out to officially apologise to Rwandans and say we are sorry for we didn’t act to stop the killings; we oversaw the killings and even participated in the genocide.”

Although some religions have openly asked for an official apology, he added, there are some that have only said “we failed, we had a role in the genocide” as a way of asking for an apology.

There are also some religions that have not asked for forgiveness but have shown a change of attitude by saying that those who committed genocide did it individually and choose to get involved in unity and reconciliation efforts.

“The challenge we have is the need for religions to come openly and say the real truth about what happened, and openly ask for forgiveness with concrete facts such as failure to act when people were discriminated, tortured and killed,” he said.

Responsibility of individuals

Bishop Rucyahana argued that an apology is a must “even if they do good things and change their attitude; that is not enough they should politically and concretely say the truth and, until they do so, there will be a missing aspect.” He added that when the church apologises openly that will bear the true fruits of forgiveness, reconciliation and Rwandanness.

The first monument of commemoration of genocide victims, with no names inscribed on it, was last month erected at St Familie Catholic Cathedral, where thousands of Tutsis were killed during the genocide.

On April 30, the Catholic Church released a new research finding on its role in the genocide and what the institution has done to reconcile the Rwandan community.

The Catholic spokesman and Bishop of Kabgayi Smargade Mbonyintege said the study was necessary in showing what the Catholic Church did during the genocide as it sought reconciliation for Rwandans. He said this was just part of the work that should be done.

Bishop Mbonyintege said the genocide was a responsibility of the then government and politics, of which the church was involved, thus having other residents involved in the genocide at different levels – political, criminal and moral – arguing that the government had the criminal and political responsibility.

Though regretting what happened in the genocide, especially the involvement of the church, the bishop however said the responsibility of individuals should not be taken as that of the entire institution and that those who were involved should face justice as individuals.

“Those who were involved in the genocide for political and personal reasons where not there to represent the church as institutions,” he said.

“However, we did ask for forgiveness, and we do that every time we celebrate the commemoration mass. Personally, I am sorry, but to declare myself politically is not true forgiveness but humility of oneself.”

Some Catholic bishops and priests involved in the genocide have eluded justice because of the protection of the Vatican.

Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka arrived at Gisors’ magnificent, cavernous 12th-century church in 2011 telling a false story of his past in Rwanda, in which he deceived that he survived the genocide, and the French believed him.

Today, his case has become an issue after the discovery of his role in the genocide. After several arrests the courts set him free, even though in 2005, under the ICTR indictment, a military court in Rwanda convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison for genocide.

The priest, ICTR says, conspired with leaders of the extremist Hutu militia by helping to draw up lists of people to be exterminated, standing by as Tutsis were taken away and killed, allowing the Interahamwe to roam his church hunting for victims and raping young women.

Protestors – some of them genocide survivors, others French married to Rwandans – have called on the Catholic Church to distance itself from Father Munyeshyaka by defrocking him.