"Past government efforts to encourage family planning were actively opposed by the [Roman Catholic] church on moral grounds in the most densely populated country on earth."

From ............. National Catholic Reporter

October 7, 1994

page 10

By CAROLE COLLINS Diplomatic Correspondent

Why did the Catholic church do so little to stop the genocidal carnage in Rwanda? How could such violence occur in a country where 90 percent of the people are Christian and 62 percent call themselves [Roman] Catholic, where the [Roman] Catholic church was, "after the government, the single most powerful institution"?

These are the uncomfortable but compelling questions posed by an article in a September publication of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa. AMECEA groups the Catholic bishops' conferences from eight poverty-stricken nations in this conflict riven region: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

The article was written by Fr. Wolfgang Schonecke, a member of the German Missionaries of Africa, White Fathers who worked with Rwandans for many years in Uganda. In June he was designated the secretary - and first head - of AMECEA's newly created pastoral department, set up to assist AMECEA members' national pastoral programs and to share pastoral initiatives with those inside and outside the East African region.

But the issues raised by his article apply far beyond the borders of the impoverished, Vermont-sized nation in East Africa now infamous for the low-tech slaughter of more than 1 million civilians contrived by Hutu militia bent on exterminating both Hutu and Tutsi opponents.

Schonecke recounts how ethnic hatred and fear, rooted in a history of reciprocal tensions and periodic pogroms - and exacerbated by Belgian colonial favoritism toward Tutsis - obviously contributed to Rwanda's recent horrors. But he goes on to detail the church's failure to address its own cultural and ethnic tensions especially among the clergy.

Contrary to the popular view that the Rwandan tragedy was solely ethnic in origin, Schonecke links the massacres to other factors, which also call into question the role played by the [Roman] Catholic church in the Rwandan conflict.

The first of the causes he lists is "an obsession with obtaining and retaining power at any price, including the use of violence." Schonecke chronicles both the former ruling Hutu clique's adamant refusal to share any power with its critics, as well as past anti-civilian violence by the current Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front government, which ousted the former rulers.

He also details how Rwanda's [Roman] Catholic hierarchy maintained "cozy relations" with a series of rulers - first the Belgian colonial administration, then the Tutsi royal house and later the Hutu-dominated regime headed by the late President Juvenal Habyarimana - all of whom felt justified in violently repressing their opponents.

Indeed, the late Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva belonged for years to the Hutu ruling party's central committee which planned the recent genocidal campaigns.

While some church groups worked for justice, human rights and democracy, their efforts were undercut by a hierarchy "too closely linked with the ruling regime to be a credible voice of protest."

"How can the church resist the temptation to use power in its mission and in turn to be used by the political powers?" Schonecke asks. Can it stand apart from the "power struggle of persons and groups and focus on the real and important issues of justice for all?" More pointedly, he asks, "Do we speak up for any group treated unfairly or only when church interests are threatened? ....... Can we develop in the church a more participatory style of leadership as a model for a more democratic style of leadership in politics?"

Schonecke also blames a sense of hopelessness generated by rampant unemployment and the negative social effects of International Monetary Fund programs. The church was once the prime agent of development in Rwanda, Schonecke notes, but it failed to recognize that strong social services don't necessarily ensure either long-term economic development or the building up of true faith communities.

The church also failed to "engage itself in effective struggle for justice and reconciliation, the only long-term basis for true development." Many Rwandan church leaders developed opulent lifestyles, which alienated them from ordinary Christians and made them appear part of Rwanda's exploitative upper classes.

Do church institutions "still serve the poor as they were originally meant to?" Schonecke asks. "Are we equally committed to ensure the foundations of justice in society as we are to development projects?"

A growing population fueled the conflict as Rwandans competed for scarce land and other resources, Schonecke says.

Past government efforts to encourage family planning were actively opposed by the [Roman Catholic] church on moral grounds in the most densely populated country on earth.

Pope John Paul II did not even mention the subject during his visit to Rwanda in 1990, says Schonecke. Yet, "planned parenthood [is] a necessity for families and for the larger community" in many countries. How far is natural family planning, the church's "answer" to this problem, "in fact available to the average Christian couple in our countries?" he asks. "What solutions do we have to offer to couples for whom this method is impossible?"

The horrors were possible, in part, he says, because of deliberate disinformation spread by mass media for conditioning people to accept and commit violence. Radio broadcasts were extensively used by the ruling Hutu clique for "vicious incitement to ethnic violence" and quickly "created a climate of mass hysteria." He writes that pastoral letters, couched in too much theological language, "do not reach the minds of most Christians," and he calls for greater church investment of talent in the media and greater freedom to express cultural values through the media .

He also cites the role of outside powers in ignoring or fueling the conflict. The French for many years provided Habyarimana's repressive regime with weapons and military advisers. And the United Nations, despite its military presence on the ground since October 1993, did virtually nothing to disrupt the Hutu regime's moves toward deliberate genocide. It even withdrew most of its forces at the height of the crisis and has been largely indecisive since then.

Rwandan Christians' failure to protect their church leaders or prevent the desecration of their churches and destruction of social institutions calls into question "the model of church Africa has inherited from the missionaries and continues to follow," Schonecke argues. [Roman] Catholic teaching exalting obedience and reinforcing a traditional culture's emphasis on absolute obedience to authority "maybe made the perversion of power possible."

Fr. Schonecke's article was published as the international community continues to grapple with the aftermath of the Rwandan massacres. On Sept. 1, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed Robert Sherwood Dillon, formerly U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, to develop a regional strategy to prevent Rwanda's neighbors from becoming engulfed in its problems. Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi now host more than 2 million Rwandan refugees.

Many Hutus are reluctant to return, fearing reprisals by the new Tutsi-dominated RPF government - or by Hutu militia in the refugee camps who have threatened or killed those trying to return. The United Nations and relief agencies are exploring ways to make the refugee camps in Zaire more secure.

Although refugee fears are being deliberately cultivated by soldiers and militia of the former ruling clique, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has also substantiated some of them, citing a pattern of recent revenge killings by RPF government troops. Its reports have created a quandary for relief agencies: whether to continue to encourage refugees to return or accept that they may well remain outside Rwanda for years, even decades, creating a massive drain on the international community.

Meanwhile, recovery has been further delayed by European and U.S. reluctance to recognize the new government before it makes firm commitments to respect human rights. A $280 million loan package prepared by Western institutions is also on hold until Rwanda can pay $6.5 million in arrears to the IMF and World Bank; the former ruling clique made that almost impossible by looting the Central Bank before it fled. Rwanda's new prime minister, noting he appreciated the aid being given refugees who fled, plaintively added, "But must we get cholera before we are helped?"