Pope asks forgiveness for Church role in Rwanda genocide

Pontiff hopes apology will help promote peace in country torn apart by genocide in 1994

Pope Francis welcomes Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame during a private audience at the Vatican, Monday, March 20th, 2017. Photograph: Tony Gentile/AP

Pope Francis welcomes Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame during a private audience at the Vatican, Monday, March 20th, 2017. Photograph: Tony Gentile/AP


Pope Francis asked on Monday for forgiveness for the “sins and failings of the Church and its members” during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, saying the violence had “disfigured the face” of the Roman Catholic Church.

In a meeting with Rwandan president Paul Kagame, Francis said he hoped his apology would help promote peace in the African country, which was torn apart by genocide in 1994, and contribute to a “purification of memory”.

The Catholic Church in Rwanda last year publicly sought forgiveness for the part played by some of its members, who it said had fanned the ethnic hatred that led to the killings.

Sought refuge

Some massacres took place in churches where people who had sought refuge were killed by militias.

The Vatican said in a statement that the pope had “implored anew God’s forgiveness for the sins and failings of the Church and its members, among whom priests, and religious men and women who succumbed to hatred and violence, betraying their own evangelical mission”.

Some 800,000 people from the ethnic Tutsi minority as well as moderates from the Hutu majority were massacred in the 1994 genocide. Mr Kagame, a Tutsi, led a rebel force to halt the slaughter.

Many of the victims died at the hands of priests, clergymen and nuns, according to some accounts by survivors, and the Rwandan government said many died in the churches where they had sought refuge.

Pressure on church

The Rwandan government has long pressured the church to apologise for its complicity in the genocide, but both the Vatican and the local church have been reluctant to do so.

The church has long said those church officials who committed crimes acted individually.

In 1996, the late St John Paul II refused to take blame on the church’s part for what transpired in Rwanda, saying in a letter to Rwandan bishops: “The church in itself cannot be held responsible for the misdeeds of its members who have acted against evangelical law.”

Four years later, however, he did make a general apology for a host of Catholic sins and crimes over its 2,000-year history.

Amid continued pressure from the government, Rwanda’s Catholic bishops last year apologised for “all the wrongs the church committed”.

The ministry of local government rejected the apology then as inadequate.

During Rwanda’s annual dialogue in December, Mr Kagame said he did not understand why the church was so reluctant to apologise for genocide when popes have apologised for other crimes.

Sexual offences

“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,” Mr Kagame said at the time.

On Monday, the Rwandan government called Francis’s meeting with Mr Kagame a “positive step forward”.

“Today’s meeting was characterised by a spirit of openness and mutual respect,” said foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo.

“It allows us to build a stronger base for restoring harmony between Rwandans and the Catholic Church.”

However, Ms Mushikiwabo repeated charges that even before 1994, Catholic institutions helped divide Rwandans and “laid the intellectual foundation for genocide ideology”.

“Today, genocide denial and trivialisation continue to flourish in certain groups within the church and genocide suspects have been shielded from justice within Catholic institutions,” the statement said.