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Twenty-two years after the brutal ethnic cleansing that shook the very existence of humanity, the Catholic Church on Sunday 20th November apologised for its role in the Rwandan genocide that brutally claimed the lives of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. This apology is contained in a joint resolution signed by nine bishops representing all dioceses, which was to be read in all the churches countrywide on Sunday as the end of year message of the jubilee of God’s mercy.

The church had until the 20th of November denied that it planned and aided the killings of over 800,000 Rwandans with tens of thousands butchered by machete-wielding extremists and priests alike in a number of Catholic parishes in Rwanda where they took refuge. The Catholic Church in the years that followed the war faced widespread criticisms for its role in the massacre as world leaders’ call for apologies from the Vatican. The United Nation peacekeeping front which was headed by Ghanaian Koffi Annan was also criticised for watching on as people were slaughtered, and despite having informed knowledge of the plan, it did nothing to avert it.

The war explained

The Tutsis, in the years before Rwanda was colonised by the Belgian government, were the ruling class of a centralised Rwandan system of government despite being the minority; they make up barely 25 percent of the population of the East African country. Being the elite class, they occupied leadership positions and relegated the majority Hutus to the backstage. The Belgians took advantage of this established centralised government, and thus made friends with the Tutsis and ruled the country through them. They further widened the chasm between the two tribes by elevating the Tutsis and relegating the Hutus. They were divided by height, size, and shape of their nose. In the long run, the privileges gave the Tutsis access to higher education and the knowledge of agitation for independence and a communist state in some African countries at that time. This development disturbed the Belgians which were ruling Rwanda through the church. Subsequently, communism was declared devilish, anti-Christian, and ultimately, a taboo.

Angered by the determination of the Tutsis to make Rwanda an independent communist state, the colonial authority broke ties with the Tutsis. They subsequently aligned with the Hutu majority who demanded the same privilege enjoyed by the Tutsis. A coup was staged, thousands of Tutsis were driven to exile, and the Hutu majority began ruling the country.

But from the ashes of exilic condemnation, the western-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front, a guerrilla Tutsi army, in 1990 invaded the country from neighbouring Uganda to challenge the leadership of the Hutus. The war lasted years until the Hutus’ president was pressured by the West against the advice of the church to sign an agreement now known as the Arusha peace agreement with the RPF-led by the US-trained Paul Kagame. In the months that followed the agreement, the United Nations sent peacekeeping corps to ensure the agreement is observed.  The government of President Habyarimana sponsored the training of a Hutu militia called Interahamwe, with the task of eliminating the Tutsis. The stage was being set for the genocide.

A trigger for the genocide was set off when the RPF, under the command of the current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, allegedly shot down the plane conveying the Rwandan president. The days that followed shaped and rewrote the history of Rwanda. A bloodthirsty group of Hutus was let loose and in the days that followed, hundreds and thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered. This continued for three months until the RPF entered Kigali and drove the genocidal regime out. Many Hutus, not sure of their safety, fled to Uganda where thousands were slaughtered two years later under the commands of Paul Kagame. Paul Kagame became the leader of the Rwanda, and 22 years down the road, he has managed to turn the state into a largely repressive and authoritarian state.

The role of the church in the Rwandan genocide. 

Christianity and the state of Rwanda are almost inseparable. Their history together started almost immediately Christianity began in the East African nation. The Belgian colonial masters started their colonisation through the church, and at a point, the church was at the central of government. Whoever the church favoured was favoured, whoever they blessed was blessed, and whoever they cursed remained cursed. Such was the power and influence of the church in Rwanda. The relationship between the church and the Tutsi is explained in a documentary titled IN THE NAME OF GOD.

The Belgian government directly ruled Rwanda through the church. The church established a monopoly on education and many other privileges such that Christianity was the only way to mental and physical development. But the church favoured the Tutsi minority which had been ruling the country prior to the coming of the colonial masters. They were privileged in education, and in time, this led to call their call for an independent communist state. Communism being a decentralised system of government and a direct challenge to the centralised authority of the church, tensions grew between the church and the Tutsis. And when the Tutsis started making communications with other African independent activists, the church aligned with the Hutus and they managed to stage a coup which dethroned the Tutsi and later drove a large number of them to the neighbouring countries of Burundi and Uganda.

The Church from that moment through Archbishop Andre Perraudin equated communism with a challenge on God’s dominance. God rules a centralised kingdom and all power belong to him, a people that seek to own power by themselves are thus evil and devilish, and enemies of God. The Tutsis were thus presented as demons standing as a hindrance to the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. The Tutsi-demon propaganda, better known as the Hutu-power, was thus established. People were taught in churches to despise the Tutsis because they were demonic.

A Hutu government was established through the Christian Democratic Party formed off the one in Belgium and Germany. Upon their independence in the early 60s, Grégoire Kayibanda, a Hutu, became the first Rwandan president. On 5th July 1973, Juvénal Habyarimana emerged as the second President of Rwanda. His government reportedly projected ethnic differences between the Tutsis and the Hutus. Being a very religious man, he made friends with the king of Belgium, King Baudouin who was a key member of the church. He involved the church at every tier of Government. People were taught to obey God as an order, thus whatever was taught in the church or said by priests were to be seen orders. Priests became key members of the government, and the archbishop of the Catholic Church was a member of the central government. The structure made it possible for the church to receive orders from the Christian Democratic Party in Belgian and such order is passed to the president who passed same to his people. It became a crime in Rwanda to challenge the inclusion of the church in the government, protesters were arrested with many imprisoned. The church had become so yoked with the government that church could hardly be separated from the government.

While this was going on in Rwanda, a group of young Tutsis exiled in Rwanda organised themselves into a group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) with a textbook plan to invade and recover their place as the ruling minority in the country. Leading this group was a skilful Paul Kagame who looked soft but very stern. He led the RPF in preparation, and in 1990, they staged an invasion through the Northern part of the country that lasted three years. A war ensued with hundreds killed and when the western-backed RPF appeared too strong for the government forces, the government was advised to dialogue with the RPF. But this was against the church’s view. There shouldn’t be a communion between God and demons. Thus in the words of Mr Alain De Bouvier, a chieftain of the Christian Democratic International, the church advised the government to reach a consensus but not one like the Arusha agreement. Pressured by the West and the UN, the government honoured a peace talk and a coalition government was formed with RPF in what has come to be known as the Arusha Peace Accord. This was expected to bring peace but it never really did. The church was apparently displeased.

From that moment, the propaganda of the demonisation of the Tutsis began and, according to Pastor Ignace Yirirwhahandi who took part in the killing, people were taught at Mass to take the war to the Tutsis because the Tutsis would come to wipe them away. More so because the Bible had said it. They were taught from the book of Jeremiah 6:22-23. The people were all but brainwashed, the Tutsis were confirmed their mortal and destiny enemy. The church literally taught people to kill, to destroy as they cannot afford to live with their enemies, the enemies of God in the country. God had promised them victory so they must fight, they must kill, they must exterminate, wipe out from the face of the earth.

In the words of a government soldier, Fulgence Niyibizi, it was more like an order for they were fighting God’s cause, they were fighting for their future, to wrestle their destinies from demons. They were not to joke with demons, they were to kill them. With scriptural backing, and being void of judgement as assured by the priests, the killers were armed by the guardians of the sanctuary to move out and kill. The church pledged allegiance to the government, promising to support the genocidal Rwandan Armed forces. The same message was preached at every mass, and willing tools readied themselves as instruments. The Christian Democratic International also sent a letter of support to the church in its actions.

The UN sent a peacekeeping force in August 1993 to ensure peace but low key executions were still reported. This went on until about four months later when an informant informed the peacekeeping force of a government militia called Interahamwe being trained to carry out the extermination of the Tutsis in the ensuing months and that they planned to kill Belgian soldiers so that Belgian could be forced to withdraw its troops. The information was sent to the UN headquarter but no action was taken and thus the stage was set for the genocide with only a trigger needed.

The trigger came when the plane of President Habyarimana in the company of Burundi’s Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on the night of 6th April. What followed has come be known as the Rwandan genocide. The attack, downing of the presidential jet, taken to be an affront on the Hutu, the war was taken to ordinary Tutsis and they were killed in their thousands. The killing was made easier because everyone in Rwanda then was made to wear an Identity card which bears their ethnic group.

Bodies of Tutsis were everywhere lying on the streets left to decay. No one was spared, not even the babies. Faced with death, some Tutsis ran to the Catholic Church for shelter. At the Ntarama Catholic Church where over five thousand Tutsis were killed, the people had shelter in the building but not in the custodians. It wasn’t just at Ntarama, Catholic parishes at  Nyamata, Nyarubuye, Cyahinda, Nyange, and Saint Famille were just a few of the churches that served as slaughter slabs and sanctuaries of death. They were presented to their killers and they were killed. Tens of thousands of them were slaughtered right in church before the priests who had preached to them of the Love of God through Christ, who had taught them of the 10 commandments, who had taught them to live, to love and to fear God.

Some of the priests and nuns who had welcomed the people to the church turned on them, hacking them to death. At other times they watched on while the people were slaughtered. One of such was Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka indicted for murder and rape in the 1994 genocide. He walks the street of Paris today a free man. Another is Father Athanase Seromba, who led the Nyange parish massacre where over 2000 people were killed. He had lured the desperate Tutsis into his parish before he ordered a bulldozer to pull down the building and then allowed the Hutu Militia in to finish off the survivors.  Archbishop Perraudin was by far the most senior of the priest that had not just hands but necks and head in the massacre. He was behind the hateful ideology of Hutu Power that gave rise to the use of Jeremiah 6: 23 as the Biblical base of the massacre of the northern invaders.

The people were betrayed by the very ones they trusted. What more could be tragic? The Church in the following years never accepted the fact that it murdered people and that that act had nothing to with God. But 22 years down the line, the church has finally come out to apologise, but to what end?

No excuse could be given for the carefully planned extermination of people who never knew their differences until the Catholic Church and the Belgians came. The Catholic Church and the Belgians amplified their differences and made them hate them. They made them enemies. The planted division between people who lived in peace. Surely there is no excuse. But the apology is better late than never. By issuing the apology, the church accepts its role as an accomplice, not just that but as a master planner of the whole exercises from the religious end. They that take responsibility for the soul they, directly and indirectly, killed by their physical and mental machete used and handed out to people. The church also sees itself as fallible, as once erred but now come to the knowledge of the truth, of being a people who acknowledged they were once in darkness but now in light, a people who exonerated God of being a murderer, accepting they did that in error of their flesh. And most importantly, that the actions of the few bad eggs do not define the stand and purpose of the church and by extension the body of Christ.

It is all about taking responsibility and accepting the fallibility of mortals. It makes the world a better place, perhaps the present generation of terrorists could learn a thing from that, and maybe, turn a new leaf.

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