From ............ CHRISTIAN CENTURY

June 15-22, 1994

pages 599-600


POPE JOHN Paul II has expressed dismay at reports that a number of priests, including two Roman Catholic bishops and the archbishop of Kigali, were murdered in Rwanda. According to rebel radio reports broadcast June 8 and monitored by the BBC in London, 13 clergymen were killed by Rwandan rebel soldiers in Kabgaye. The same reports say that the religious leaders were slain by four soldiers who had been assigned to protect them.

In a separate report on June 9, United Nations sources said they had received news that nine additional [Roman] Catholic priests had been killed in a massacre in Kigali.

In a written message the pope called for decisive action on the part of the international community to end the fighting in what he referred to as this martyred nation." Although details of the Kabgaye killings remain sketchy, apparently the four guards believed that the clergymen were involved in slaying the guards' relatives. But the Associated Press reported that Colonel Frank Mugambage, political director of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Army, told the news agency that the rebels "don't really have any evidence" against the clergymen, who, Mugambage claimed, were slain as they ate dinner.

The rebel radio report said that three of the soldiers fled and a fourth was shot and killed by other rebel guards. A search was under way to find the escaped soldiers and bring them to trial before a military tribunal. The radio named the bishops as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kigali, Vincent Nsengiyumva: the president of the Bishop'.s Conference, Bishop Thaddee Nsengiyumva (no relation); and Bishop Joseph Ruzindana of Byumba.

The murder of the clergymen is only one of an endless series of atrocities in Rwanda's gruesome civil war. At least 200,000 and perhaps as many as 500,000 Rwandans have been slaughtered since early April. In addition several million have been left homeless and uprooted. Some African church officials contend that more people have died in Rwanda in a week than in Bosnia during the past two years. How could such carnage occur?

Why has a nation that is almost three quarters [Roman] Catholic descended into apparent madness?

And what does that say about the relevance of the church and its role in any possible national reconciliation ?

The answer to these questions lies in the nation's bleak history rent with ethnic and religious divisions, a legacy of colonial domination, and political struggles bloodied by a long string of human rights abuses. The Rwandan tragedy cannot he summed up by phrases like "tribal warfare" - the frequently offered explanation for the bloodletting that began April 6, the day Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed in a suspicious plane explosion that also took the life of Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira. The apparent murder of the two presidents added fuel to long simmering, centuries-old hatred between Rwanda's ruling Hutu and minority Tutsi. But while the tensions between the two groups are real, they are also mired in a complex web of history that defies easy explanations.

"The violence . . . in Rwanda is neither anarchy nor the consequence of civil war, or ethnic hatreds. The massacres have been carefully organized by a segment of the Rwandan military, in particular the Presidential Guard and the ruling party militia," commented Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights monitoring organization. "They are using a campaign of genocidal proportions against the Rwandan Tutsi, while eliminating both Hutu and Tutsi political opponents as well, to obtain political control of the country," Roth said.

Even before the recent slaughter of Roman Catholic clergy, Catholic religious and laity had become victims of the strife. The religious workers represent a church that, although rooted in the traditions of European and North American Catholic missionaries, has been struggling to find a more distinctly African voice. This same church must act as both comforter and questioner, healer and prophet, in Rwanda.

Whether it can fulfill that role is unclear, given a national history in which the church has been both evangelist and agent of colonial rule.

Those who have worked in Rwanda say there is little in the way of consensus about what the church can and should do now. According to Ezekiel Pajibo, a Liberian citizen and lay Catholic who works for Africa Faith and Justice Network, a Washington-based consortium of Catholic missionary organizations, the church is complicit in the newest version of that system: educating Western-oriented elites who prey on the majority of impoverished Rwandans.

"The missionaries will say, ÔWhere did we go wrong?' In fact, the educational system has perpetuated the injustices," Pajibo maintained.

What has led to these sorts of things? The church has to see what it was doing helped create a debased, immoral culture.

Denis Bergeron, a French-Canadian priest and a member of the Society of Missionaries of Africa, left Rwanda April 12 in a truck convoy with mostly white expatriates and tourists . Angry epithets about Belgians and their possible complicity in President Habyarimana's death greeted the fleeing visitors as they took their leave from Rwanda. Bergeron said he understands the anger behind the catcalls and screams. Even so, he doesn't believe the church failed in the face of such overwhelming destruction of life. "I don't feel that our work has been useless," he said. "The violence has been committed by a small percentage of the population." Still, he conceded that Rwanda's Catholic bishops have perhaps been too close to those in power and as a result have diminished their moral authority. Pajibo is less sanguine about the Rwandan church, but he remains guardedly optimistic. Progressive elements within the church may be emboldened to act as a kind of moral compass, guiding the church to a more prophetic level so that "justice is the bedrock on which the future is formed."

A Rwandan Catholic priest studying in the U.S. is far less optimistic. The priest, who asked to remain anonymous, sees the church in Rwanda as complicit in the carnage both because it has not condemned the bloodletting to the fullest extent it can and because it did not speak out against earlier human rights abuses. "Silent forgiveness is not enough," he said. "The church knew this was going to happen." Now Rwanda, a land he loves, is awash in blood. "You don't know which God to turn to. This is a real crisis of faith."