Warrant for genocide

Today, 7 April, services will be held throughout Rwanda to commemorate the some one million lives lost during the 1994 Genocide. They’ll be followed by a designated national week of mourning, during which time communities will come together to take part in events to not only remember those lost in one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies, but also to try and guard against it ever happening again.

For the first time though, this year’s commemorations, known as Kwibuka23, which means ‘remember’ in Kinyarwanda, will take place in light of a recent papal apology and an admission of the Church’s culpability. In March, at a Vatican meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Pope Francis ‘implored anew God’s forgiveness for the sins and failings of the church and its members, among whom priests and religious men and women who succumbed to hatred and violence, betraying their own evangelical mission’ (my emphasis).

This admission was a not insignificant break with the Church’s long-held position: that while individual members of the clergy may have participated in the Genocide, no blame should rest with the institution as a whole. For Pope Francis, the Rwandan Genocide and the Church’s role in it, marks a shameful disconnection and betrayal of its broader ‘evangelical mission’. But what is the true nature of that mission?

In the heady days of empire, the Church saw itself as a civilising force, charged with doing God’s work. The rationale allowed for all kinds of concessions. No work was more urgent than saving souls across Africa, thus, whatever needed to be done to expedite the process was a morally justifiable means to an end. As the great Congolese philosopher V Y Mudimbe wrote:

a person whose ideas and mission come from and are sustained by God is rightly entitled to the use of all possible means, even violence, to achieve his objectives. Consequently, ‘African conversion,’ rather than being a positive outcome of a dialogue – unthinkable per se – came to be the sole position the African could take in order to survive as a human being.

Indeed, not only is the Church inseparable from the colonial enterprise, it was one of the most destructive elements. AJ Christopher argues in Colonial Africa:

missionaries, possibly more than members of other branches of the colonial establishment, aimed at the radical transformation of indigenous society…They therefore sought, whether consciously or unconsciously, the destruction of pre-colonial societies and their replacement by new Christian societies in the image of Europe.

Nowhere is this truer than Rwanda. At the time of the Genocide, it was, per capita, the most Catholic country in Africa. The ethnic ideology that came to dominate colonial and post-colonial society found one of its earliest and most determined promoters in the French priest Léon-Paul Classe. One of the first missionaries in the country, he was considered as an expert on the region and became an influential advisor to the Belgian colonial administration.

In pre-colonial Rwanda, the Tutsis were the cattle owners, while the Hutus traditionally worked the land. The distinction was more class-based than ethnic – Tutsis could become Hutus if they lost their cattle or vice versa. But under colonial rule, this distinction came to be (erroneously) understood in ethnic and fixed terms. The pseudo-sciences of phrenology and physiognomy were enlisted to legitimate the myth of Tutsi superiority, which set the country on a tragic course.

But the Church’s culpability for the violence that plagued post-colonial Rwandan society, of which the 1994 Genocide was the culmination, extends beyond its role in the invention and advocacy of ethnic ideology. As the violence and anti-Tutsi rhetoric escalated in the lead-up to the 1994 Genocide, the Church preached extirpation from the pulpit.

In a polemic published during Kwibuka22, Vincent Gasana wrote:

Yes, it was individuals who committed infanticide, fratricide, patricide, matricide and just about every kind of murder that can be imagined by the most depraved of minds, but, they did so with the blessing of the Church’s hierarchy, and within the framework of a murderous, hateful ideology, conceived and nurtured within the institution of the Church.

Following President Paul Kagame’s audience with the Pope, Ibuka, an umbrella body of organisations representing Genocide survivors, said they hoped the apology would lead to the Church’s assistance in hunting down members of the clergy that participated in the Genocide. They mentioned Fr Wenceslas Munyeshyaka specifically, who was found guilty of rape and genocide by a Rwandan court and sentenced in absentia to life in prison. During the trial, witnesses recounted how the gun-toting priest directed the militia to slaughter members of his congregation. Despite this, he continues to serve as a parish priest in France.

Munyeshyaka has become a symbol of the Vatican’s prioritising the protection of its own reputation over justice for the victims, but he is by no means the only case. In some instances, the Holy See played a direct role in assisting clergy obtain safe passage to Europe, often by changing their name and obscuring their true identity.

The best known case is of Fr Athanase Seromba, who ordered the bulldozing of his church while 2,000 Tutsis sought shelter inside – as ‘God’s House’ was demolished, he ordered the militia, known as the Interahamwe, to surround the church and shoot those trying to escape. In the aftermath of the Genocide, the Vatican helped him escape to Italy, where he became a Florentine parish priest. When his identity was uncovered he eventually faced charges and was found guilty of genocide, for which he’s now serving a life sentence in Benin.

The scramble for Africa is but a speck on the continent’s history, but it’s had such profound consequences and continues to dictate the rhythms of everyday life of so many. Colonialism condemned the continent to underdevelopment, which is all to commonly seen in the West today as a symptom of African ineptness, rather than a product of colonial design (and continued western promulgation).

Incalculable numbers of people have died; entire cultures have been wiped out and the West has built itself on the lives and gold of the continent. It’s hard to see what, if any, element of the colonial enterprise has actually benefitted and enriched the lives of Africans. That is, perhaps, with the exception of Christianity.

Many Rwandans moved away from the Catholic Church after the Genocide, most opting to convert to other Christian denominations. Nonetheless, while religious belief, particularly Christianity, wanes in the West, it continues to grow and flourish across Africa, as it does in much of the developing world.

The Church occupies a complicated position within many African cultures: it’s widely esteemed and respected, yet its role in the systemic oppression that still afflicts these same cultures is undeniable.

Welcome (and long overdue) as Pope Francis’ apology is, it doesn’t make amends for the crimes the Church was a party to during European colonial expansion. Nor is it enough. Pre-empting such as an apology, Gasana wrote that it ‘must be accompanied by a requirement for every nun, priest, or ordinary member of the Church, who stands accused of crimes of genocide, to present him or herself, before temporal justice’.

Justice is an oft talked about concept in Rwanda, but, in a country where génocidaires live next door to those whose families they killed, justice looks different to what it does anywhere else in the world. But whatever it means, it’s time the Church started acting as force that seeks it, rather than one that obscures and subverts it.


*The title is borrowed from Norman Cohn’s book about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Tim Robertson

Tim Roberson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12.

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  1. There are two more aspects of Catholic Church culpability for conflict in Rwanda and Burundi, and these are in regard to land and reproductive rights. In both countries the Church took ownership of swathes of prime land, making it inaccessible to farmers. By opposing contraception the Church contributed to high birth rates. Patrilineal descent lines meant fathers equally divided their land amongst all the sons, resulting in plots too small to be sustainably farmed. This shortage of available land added to the tension which led to the wars. Official Rwandan history tends to concentrate on the ideological and ethnic divisions wrought by colonialism, but the land issue is also relevant: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/27/the-blood-cries-out-burundi-land-conflict/

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