Rwanda and Burundi," says Hastings, "are the two most [Roman] Catholic nations of Africa and the most bloody."

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

June 3, 1994

page 11


By PETER HEBBLETHWAITE ......... Vatican Affairs Writer

OXFORD, England - If the estimates about the death toll in Rwanda are right then nearly half of the Tutsi population of 1 million has been killed. They were already a minority compared with the 6 million Hutu. Pope John Paul, from his hospital bed, essayed the word "genocide." It seems to fit.

For an understanding of what has been happening in Rwanda, I turned to Adrian Hastings, professor of theology at Leeds, England, and author of the standard, History of the Church in Africa.

He deplores the shortsightedness of commentators, who imagine this is a recent conflict that has suddenly and unaccountably flared up. He takes the view that massacres and killings should be seen in the light of history.

Rwanda - along with its neighbor Burundi - was part of German East Africa until the First World War when it became a Belgian protectorate.

The two main tribes had lived there for centuries in relative peace. Though there has been intermarriage, the Tutsi and the Hutu are often visibly different.

The Tutsi are a taller, Nilotic people, while the Hutu are darker and stockier. Life and death has come to depend upon this physical difference.

The Tutsi from the North were a pastoral people who had conquered the sedentary peasant Bantus, here known as Hutu. They then adopted the language and culture of the Hutu ("just as the Normans did in England," Hastings added).

Though a minority, the Tutsi kings remained the ruling power throughout the colonial period. With the approach of independence in 1960 and with it the prospect of democracy, the Belgians encouraged a coup, which overthrew the Tutsi king and led many Tutsi to flee to western Uganda as refugees.

These refugees and their descendants have been, according to Hastings, the source of conflict ever since. It was always the aim of the Tutsi to destabilize the Hutu government. They have the support of the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, who comes from western Uganda and is a Tutsi sympathizer.

The rebel forces in the Rwanda Patriotic Front, well-armed and relatively well-disciplined, have come from Uganda. They claim to be a liberation army, including in their ranks Hutu political opponents of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana. If this claim is true, it may be the key to the future.

Habyarimana, killed when his plane: was shot down April 6, feared the Tutsi threat "and was particularly nasty toward them." With his death and that of his prime minister, the Hutu government fell apart. Anarchy set in. It was at this point that the systematic massacre of the Tutsi began, fomented by the privately owned Radio Mille Collines.

The radio urged the Hutu to "complete the work left unfinished in 1959" and that meant killing the Tutsi women and children as well. The troops and the death squads feel they have their backs to the wall and little to lose. They hold 8,000 hostages in a seminary compound. Fearing revenge, many Hutu civilians have fled to Burundi or Tanzania. These tribal power struggles help to explain why the church has been so powerless to mediate or intervene.

Rwanda and Burundi," says Hastings,

"are the two most Catholic nations of Africa and the most bloody."

The Hutu had been attracted to Christianity first while the Tutsi kings and ruling elite remained aloof. Then in 1931 the Belgians deposed the king, installed another more sympathetic to them, who soon "converted to [Roman] Catholicism amid much trumpet-blowing." This led to mass conversions among the Tutsi. "There was," says Hastings, "a stampede of Tutsi into the church very much stimulated by the Belgian colonial power."

The whole conversion process was, Hastings claims, "fairly phony."

The [Roman] Catholic church, which had previously appeared pro-Hutu, in the 1930s and 1940s seemed to favor the better-educated Tutsi. In the 1950s the Belgian missionaries faced the prospect that the end of colonialism would mean the end of the king.

"Majority rule" - under the name of "democracy" - inevitably meant that the Hutu would come to power. According to Hastings, the Belgian [Roman Catholic] missionaries switched sides.

He recalls a Tutsi priest scholar, Alexis Kademe, being especially bitter in the 1950s at the Belgian policy of advancing the Hutu. These resentments and divisions entered into the life of the church, which had not succeeded in creating a Christian society.

The Rwandan conflict discloses something alarming: Christian faith has not set down deep enough roots in Africa to overcome tribalism.

This theme was tackled by Albert Kanene Obiefuna, bishop of Awka, Nigeria, speaking to the synod in Rome April 4. The typical African, he said, lives a split-level existence:

Even within the church, divisions about where to build a church or where the bishop comes from are judged according to the benefit they bring to the tribe or clan. There is very little sense of the church as family.

Obiefuna could have been thinking of Rwanda:

When it comes to the crunch. And it has come to the crunch in Rwanda. Yet, to leave the matter there would be a counsel of despair that would ratify failure. The church-as-family has to be the key to eventual reconciliation.

Reflecting on the nature of democracy, the Kenyan bishops wrote a pastoral letter last March in which they find elements of democracy in the "African tradition."

Kings and chiefs were never absolute rulers, but were "assisted by a council of elders and we cannot say that there was no concern for the common peace and good." The crucial point was the relationship between "winners and losers" when power shifted.

In precolonial times, African tribes negotiated complicated treaties rather than fight to the death. Nelson Mandela has shown this attitude toward the defeated Zulus in South Africa.

This may seem a far cry from the mutilated corpses drifting down the swollen Kagera River and polluting Lake Victoria.

But conflicts, even the most bitter and intransigent, come to an end when a principle of reconciliation can be found. Hope is born the other side of despair.

National Catholic Reporter .......... page 11 .......... June 3, 1994