Church is accused on Rwandan genocide


Pope John Paul II has recently sought an "examination of conscience" by the Catholic Church over its role in the genocide of Jews during the second World War. The Pope stated: "At the end of the millennium, the Catholic Church desires to express her deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age."

Fine sentiments of contrition, you might think. But how genuine? For at the very time when the church is seeking an examination of conscience on one genocide, it is apparently covering up its direct complicity in quite the most awful genocide since the Holocaust - that in Rwanda four years ago.

In that genocide, 800,000 of the 900,000 resident Tutsi population, along with tens of thousands of moderate Hutus, were massacred over three months. Many Catholic clergy, who were Tutsis, were among the victims. Over 60 per cent of the Hutu population is Catholic.

Last May, Rakiya Omaar, the director of African Rights, an organisation which has done outstanding work in collating the stories of the survivors of the genocide, wrote to the Pope. In this letter, she outlined not only the Catholic Church's direct involvement in the genocide but its continuing role in protecting some of its main perpetrators. It is an appalling catalogue. The following are extracts from the letter:

"Fr. Thaddee Rusingizandekwe, a former military chaplain, was a teacher at the Grand Seminary in Nyakibanda, Butare, but was at home in Gikongoro when the genocide began. He was arrested in September 1994. On 14 April 1994, he was among the men who led a major massacre at the Catholic Parish of Kibeho in Gikongoro, accompanied by his father, Telesphore Mugara. Armed with a gun, he personally shot into the crowd and threw grenades, after which the wounded and the survivors were set on fire inside the church. He then proceeded to Gishamvu in Butare, where he taught militiamen, responsible for killing thousands of Tutsis, how to shoot . . .

"Fr. Athanase Seromba is accused of having paid to have 2,000 Tutsis crushed to death with Caterpillar bulldozers at the parish of Nyange in Kibuye, and of having personally supervised the massacre. He is now resident in Italy where he is studying.

"Fr. Hormisdas Nsengimana, the rector of Christ Roi College in Nyanza, Butare, was, according to survivors and many residents of Nyanza, one of three men who organised and implemented the genocide there. (After the genocide he was evacuated to Italy and is now working as a priest in Cameroon).

"Fr. Joseph Sagahutu served at the Parish of Muganza in Gikongoro. Throughout the genocide, he worked openly with Damien Biniga, the sous- prefet who orchestrated the massacres in that region. On 15 April, he is said to have helped Biniga and his militia kill thousands of refugees sheltering in his parish. We are not aware of his current whereabouts.

"Mgr. Augustin Misago was the Bishop of Gikongoro during the genocide, a position he occupies today, despite his conduct in 1994. . . . He refused to allow any refugees to take shelter at the bishopric, claiming that the bishopric was "too small". He sent the Tutsis who sought his help to Murambi, where they were massacred in huge numbers.

"Nor did the bishop raise a finger to save 90 school children isolated in the College of Kibeho who had been threatened and who feared for their lives. On May 4, the bishop was part of a delegation which spoke with the children. The youngsters made an emotional appeal to Mgr. Misago for help. Three days later, 82 of them were massacred. The bishop did not react.

"Archbishop Thade Ntihinyurwa was Bishop of the diocese of Cyangugu during the genocide. Anxious to safeguard the buildings, the bishop refused to allow Tutsi refugees to hide in the cathedral, with the exception of some clergy, some helpers and a few acquaintances.

"Accompanied by the notorious prefet of Cyangugu, Emmanuel Bagambiki, and soldiers, he forced them out to be driven to a football stadium. On the way to the stadium, the refugees sang funeral songs, knowing the fate that awaited them.

"After the genocide, Bishop Ntihinyurwa made his priorities clear, once again. When Fr. Dieudonne Rwakabayiza was ordained in April 1995, the bishop thanked the Christians of the Parish of Mwezi for having protected parish property during the genocide. He said nothing about the Christians who were murdered there in April 1994 at the parish and commune office.

"Despite open condemnation of the bishop's behaviour by survivors, not long after the genocide, Bishop Ntihinyurwa was appointed Archbishop.

"Brother Jean-Baptiste Rutihunza of the Freres de la Charite is accused of having organised the murder of disabled Tutsi children and staff at a centre for the handicapped in Gatagara, Gitarama. He is now living in Italy. Numerous witnesses have also given detailed testimonies against two other priests living in Italy, Fr. Emmanuel Rukundo and Fr. Daniel Nahimana, for their role in the genocide in Gitarama. Some of the clergymen living in Italy, wanted for genocide in Rwanda, are studying in prestigious Catholic institutions, supported by the church."

Priests and nuns denounced for their role in the genocide are also living in other European countries.

"Two Benedictine nuns evacuated to Belgium, Mother Superior Gertrude Mukangango and Sr. Julienne Kizito, are accused of helping to murder thousands of Tutsis who had taken refuge in their monastery in Sovu, Butare, including the relatives of their fellow-nuns and even their staff . . ."

The letter goes on to detail the contribution of the Catholic Church to the culture that permitted and promoted the genocide.

"The genocide of 1994 was comprehensive, relentless and took place with lightning speed because the ground had been so well-prepared. From 1959 onwards, the State sanctioned a political ideology which held that the Tutsi people were `foreign invaders' who should be sent `home' to Ethiopia. Killing a Tutsi was portrayed as part of a struggle for national liberation and considered a banality . . ."

"The influence of the Catholic Church - and its own role in this history - go some way to explaining the shameful actions of a number of priests and nuns during the genocide. For almost a century, bishops, priests and nuns, both Rwandese and foreign, have been openly involved in the country's politics and practised routine ethnic discrimination."

No reply to the letter has been forthcoming from the Vatican.

(I am indebted to journalist Mac Dara Doyle for bringing the Africa Rights letter to my attention.)