["Father"] Skinnader, working with the Irish relief agency GOAL, is trying to find out why [Roman] Catholicism failed in Rwanda.
Why did the [Roman Catholic] church fail to halt the genocide of an estimated 500,000 Rwandans, most of them ethnic Tutsis and Roman Catholics? Why did [Roman] Catholic Hutus turn killers?
JANUARY 22, 1995
GOMA, Zaire (AP) -- For weeks last summer and fall, the Rev. ["Father"] John Skinnader went to the Goma cemetery to sprinkle holy water on the plastic body bags of the latest Rwandan refugees who died, and to bless the thousands who perished with no funeral at all.
For the Irish [Roman Catholic] priest, it was a profound gesture that went to the core of human identity -- a ceremony that asserted the dignity of man, a dignity that countless thousands of Rwandans lost when they disobeyed the commandment "Thou Shall Not Kill."
During the civil war in Somalia, Muslim leaders insisted that tens of thousands of famine victims be buried with proper Muslim rites. But in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of victims of genocide and subsequent epidemics were just abandoned. Many were unceremoniously dumped in mass graves, some from the huge mouth of a mechanical digger.
"There are no tears for the dead and no tears of remorse," Skinnader said. "People's feelings have been put in suspended animation."
For him, the daily ritual of saying funeral rites for the dead and caring for their graves is a way of starting over, an essential first step to try "to build up the dignity of the human person once again."
Skinnader, working with the Irish relief agency GOAL, is trying to find out why [Roman] Catholicism failed in Rwanda. Why did the church fail to halt the genocide of an estimated 500,000 Rwandans, most of them ethnic Tutsis and Roman Catholics? Why did [Roman] Catholic Hutus turn killers?
"You have a devoutly religious people who seem to have a dichotomy between the human values and religious values," Skinnader said in an interview.
The Rome-based priest from the Congregation of the Holy Ghost is also examining whether [Roman] Catholicism can be a force for reconciliation. He is trying to organize a reunion of Hutu and Tutsi [Roman Catholic] priests.
Rwanda is the most [Roman] Catholic country in Africa, with more than 60 percent of the population adhering to the faith. Yet, human rights groups have charged that the [Roman] Catholic hierarchy in Rwanda did nothing to stop the slaughter.
Indeed, some [Roman Catholic] priests actively encouraged the murderers and carried guns themselves, according to the London-based human rights group African Rights and other groups. The Rev. Jean-Baptiste Rugengamanzi, a Hutu who heads the Kigali diocese in Rwanda's capital, said those reports had not been confirmed.
The Vatican did not respond to questions about the role of [Roman] Catholic clergy during the massacres that began last April. It also would not comment on whether it was investigating the church's failures in Rwanda and trying to foster reconciliation.
Rugengamanzi said Rwanda's [Roman Catholic] bishops conference had condemned earlier massacres, protested the use of "ethnic ideology" and called for a cease-fire in Rwanda's civil war.
"What could the church do?" he asked. "The church has taught people to love. It has taught charity, not to kill. I think our role was to invite the people to make peace and we did. Have we to go fighting with guns?"
The [Roman] Catholic Church was divided long before the mysterious plane crash on April 6 that killed Rwanda's Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, the spark for the massacres.
In a country that was more than 80 percent Hutu, about half the [Roman] Catholic clergy was Tutsi, mainly because the church was one of the few institutions open to Tutsis. But this was "unbearable to extremist Hutus," said the Rev. Octave Ugiras, a Tutsi and Jesuit priest.
Hutu militiamen killed many nuns and priests, accusing them of supporting the rebel Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, which later won the civil war and is now in power. According to African Rights, as many as one-quarter of Rwanda's Catholic clergy were slain.
"Militiamen used to say we have nothing to do with God.
They said the Virgin Mary was a Tutsi woman and she had to be killed," said Ugiras, who heads the Christus Center in Kigali where 17 priests and nuns were slaughtered.
Today, many of the Hutu priests who supported the ousted Hutu regime are in exile in Goma, a city just across the border in Zaire.
The Hutu and Tutsi priests now in Rwanda are mainly moderates, Ugiras said.
Rwandans have not abandoned [Roman] Catholicism. Churches in Kigali are packed on Sundays and thousands attend Mass in the refugee camps.
But the [Roman Catholic] church remains divided.
Representatives of all Rwandan dioceses met in early October and did not issue a statement because they could not agree.
"It's very difficult to be together -- to find some core," Ugiras said.
"Some say we have to punish those responsible. Some say there should be no Mass because people have killed. Others say those who have killed have gone away. Others say we are condemning Hutus when Tutsis also committed murder. Many people say you have to keep silent in this time," he said.
Ugiras said the church must speak out "again and again" about justice, and urged foreign priests to take the lead.
African Rights, in a 442-page report, said many senior [Roman Catholic] priests and bishops should be asked to leave the church, "their betrayal has been so deep."
"Like the nation as a whole, the [Roman Catholic] church stands in need of truth-telling, justice, reconciliation and penance," the report said.