Covert Action Quarterly

EXCERPT FROM- Genocide in Rwanda

The Ungodly Missionary legacy


For a century, the most powerful force shaping Rwandese society has been the White Fathers order of the Roman Catholic Church.

The missionaries had arrived in the 1880s and staked their religious claim in the German colony Ruanda-Urundi. In 1919, as part of the Versailles Treaty, Rwanda was awarded to Belgium as a League of Natios trust territory. Living in a secular Western society, it is difficult to appreciate the impact of this relatioship and the depth of the emotional ties that still bind the Belgian Catholic Church and parts of the Rwandese Hutu political establishment.

Before colonial rule, "Hutu" and "Tutsi" were not ethnic groups as they exist to day. The relationship between different Rwandese peoples was complex and mutable. At the hub of the state was a powerful, centralizing court, based on the Nyiginya (Tutsi) lineage. In the countryside, "Tutsi" were cattle owners and representatives of the court; "Hutu" were farmers. "Hutu" could, and did, become "Tutsi" as chiefs were incorporated into the ruling elite, or farmers be came wealthy and acquired cattle. Rwanda was certainly an unequal society, but the ethnic boundary was permeable, and Nyiginya Tutsi dominance was mitigated by social institutions that gave much authority to certain Hutu chiefs, and imposed certain obligations on Tutsi administrators.

Colonial rule transformed this pattern. The Belgians made the Tutsi the privileged intermediaries in their rule. No mere cynical "divide and rule" strategy, this intervention reflected the racist thinking that was axiomatic of European imperialism. Since the European conquerors held that no civilization could have existed in black Africa, the centralized state of Rwanda was an anomaly that challenged a premise of colonial legitimacy. Colonial bishops, anthropologists, and soldier-administrators explained it away with a racial fantasy: the so-called "Hamitic hypothesis." Longffince discredited, it held that all "civilized" institutions in central Africa were the result of an invasion by "Hamites"-variously identified as "black Caucasians" and "AfricanAryans."

In the period from 1910 to 1940, the White Fathers, led by Bishop Leon Classe, developed this Hamitic ideology. Classe and his acolytes then rewrote Rwandese history to conform to it, designating the Tutsis as Hamites, inventing a Christian origin for them, and arguing that they were "lapsed" Ethiopians destined for a privileged place in Christian evangelism. The theory coincided neatly with colonial anthropologists' quest for racial topologies-Tutsis were on the whole taller, thinner, and more "European"-looking than Hutus.

In Rwanda, Hamitic ideology legitimized a rigid pseudo-racial hierarchy which had profound and long-reaching political consequences. The elevation of the Tutsi meant the relegation of the Hutu to the status of Bantu serfs, and of the Twa (a small group of potters and hunter-gatherers) to the lowest position of aboriginal "pygmoids"-supposedly remnants of an earlier stage of human evolution. Under the Belgians, Tutsi dominance was extended; Tutsi powers and privileges intensified; and the entire population was required to be registered as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. Such was the slender basis of this formal racial classification that the authorities were obliged to use cattle ownership as their criterion-people with ten or more cows were Tutsi (in perpetuity); those with fewer were Hutu. These same ID cards tell modern-day killers whom to kill and whom to spare.

Toward the end of the colonial era, the Roman Catholic Church, and then the colonial authorities, reversed their preferences and inverted the hierarchy. The new generation of Belgian missionaries who arrived in Rwanda brought with them another strand of Catholic teaching-the social justice theory of the Young Christian Workers. These priests and colonial officers-most of them Flemish-turned away from the Tutsi who were a dominant minority. In stead, they readily identified with the oppressed Hutu majority, just as Hutu teachers and priests readily latched onto the new religious politics-egalitarian but conservative. Thus, as independence approached in the 1950s, the racial classification remained, but it was the Hutu who reaped the rewards. In 1959, Belgian paratroopers presided over a bloody uprising in which ten thousand Tutsi were slaughtered and over a hundred thousand driven abroad. In 1962, Gregoire Kayibanda, secretary to the Archbishop and founder of the Hutu supremacist Parme Hutu party, duly became the first president of independent Rwanda.

The Flow of Hatred

The legacy of the missions lives on- not merely in the huge and beautiful churches that dot the hillsides, not just in the fact that the late archbishop, Msgr. Vincent Nsengiyumva served for 15 years on the central committee of the ruling party, but also in the way the Hamitic ideology underpinned that regime's racist extremism. These Hutu extremists took the "Ethiopian invasion" hypothesis, turned it back in the face of the Tutsi, and called for them to return "home." A prominent Hutu ideologue, Leon Mugesera (recently arrested in Canada and likely to be charged with crimes against humanity), repeatedly incited Hutu peasants to send the Tutsi "back" to Ethiopia. Showing a contempt for geography equal to his disregard for history, Mugesera enjoined his followers to throw the Tutsi in the Nyabarongo river. The order was not taken metaphorically. Last April and May, perhaps 40,000 corpses made the watery journey to Lake Victoria. In late 1992, Hassan Ngeze, the extremists' leading journalist (currently in Nairobi, Kenya), published the extremist manifesto, "The Hutu Ten Commandments." Commandment number two says that Hutu women are more beautiful and make better wives and secretaries; number eight commands the Hutu to "stop having mercy on the Tutsi."

The Belgian church and political establishment deny the legacy of their ideologies and policies at work in the content and idiom of Hutu extremism. On the contrary, many Belgian priests, academics, and politicians remain closely wedded to Hutu politics and continue to espouse the Hutu extremists' political cause with an extraordinary fervor. The European Internationale Democrate Chretien (IDC, related to the Christian Democratic Party), repeatedly endorsed the program of the government of Juvenal Habyarimana, stating as recently as 1992 that "there is no alternative to the MRND [his party]."

In October 1994, Belgian Senator Dr. Jab Van Erps traveled to the extremists' headquarters in Zaire to coordinate meetings with the men primarily responsible for the genocide. An academic at the Catholic University of Leuven, objecting to an account that the genocide was centrally planned, echoed the mass killers' own words when he described the slaughter as "a people's genocide" mounted in spontaneous response to the supposed provocation of the Rwandese Patriotic Front. His words were closely echoed in a sermon byArch bishop Nsengiyumva in which the genocide was obliquely justified as a means of ensuring democratic majority rule. Equally firm in their commitment to Hutu extremism-equating it with majoritarian rule and thus "democracy" in a crude sense-are some of the Protestant missions, particularly those active in Burundi. After the genocide, some foreign missionaries echoed the extremist propaganda, blaming the entire slaughter on "provocation" by the Tutsis. At a press conference held after they were evacuated to Europe, a group of Danish Baptists who had worked among Burundi refugees were among those who refused to blame Hutu extremists for the genocide.