An Important Step: the Catholic Church’s Apology over Role in Rwandan Genocide

My father and I heard on the radio the unexpected news that Rwanda’s Catholic bishops apologized for the Church’s complicity in the planning, aiding, and abetting of the 1994 genocide that claimed more than a million lives. This initiative, however, drew strong criticism from the government who found the apology “profoundly inadequate” and called instead for an official apology from the Vatican. Although this comes over two decades late, I welcome this as an initial step. As a Rwandan and a Catholic, I also urge the Church’s leadership, at home and abroad, to heed these criticisms and promote efforts aimed at justice and reconciliation.

The statement released on November 20 read, “We apologize for all the wrongs the church committed. We apologize on behalf of all Christians for all forms of wrongs we committed. We regret that church members violated (their) oath of allegiance to God’s commandments. Forgive us for the crime of hate in the country to the extent of also hating our colleagues because of their ethnicity. We didn’t show that we are one family but instead killed each other.”

The Rwandan government welcomed the bishops’ initiative as an “individual expression of remorse” but criticized its “profound inadequacy [that] only serves to highlight how far the Catholic Church still remains from a full and honest reckoning with its moral and legal responsibilities.” In the government’s view, the apology is a failed attempt by Rwandan bishops to “exonerate the Catholic Church as a whole for any culpability in connection with the Genocide” and stressed that there is “ample justification” for an apology from the Vatican in the context of the severity of crimes committed. There were also reports of the failure of some “priests to read the bishop’s message to parishioners as intended” during mass on Sunday.

The historical role of the Catholic Church from the colonial era to the genocide offers a backdrop to the significant backlash against the bishops’ initiative. Without delving into too many details, the 2000 report by the Organization for the Unity of Africa (OUA) titled “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide” provides some relevant insights. With Belgian colonial endorsement, the first missionaries in Rwanda, also known as the White Fathers, institutionalized rigid ethnic identities for political purposes through indoctrination in schools and at churches. In per-colonial Rwanda, the terms Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa described social class rather than ethnicity, as these groups shared a common language, culture, and land.

The shift from economic class to ethnic group rested on pseudo-science rooted in racial ranking theories of the time, culminating in the policy of including ethnic groups on national identity cards, formalizing and exacerbating societal cleavages. These identity cards would later prove a death sentence for many during the genocide. Since then, national identity cards no longer display ethnic affiliation, in an effort to foster reconciliation and unity.

The separation of church and state barely existed during the post-independence period, the OUA report argues. The church leadership remained “a firm and reliable bulwark” of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s regime in fueling ethnic discrimination and hatred. Instead of being sanctuaries, churches became primary killing sites. The very first massacre on the morning of April 7 occurred at Centre Christus in Kigali, a place where I attended mass on Christmas day last year. Church leaders did nothing to discourage the killings and “the close association of church leaders with the leaders of the genocide [was interpreted] as a message that genocide was consistent with church teachings.”  Priests committed heinous acts and often members of the congregation conducted the killing. At least 55,000 are reported to have perished in churches across the country.

The timing of the apology, 22 years following the end of the genocide, also raised important questions. According to the Bishop Phillipe Rukamba, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Rwanda, the “statement was timed to coincide with the formal end Sunday of the Holy Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis to encourage greater reconciliation and forgiveness in his church and in the world.” Moreover, the local church and the Vatican have maintained that “while individual clergy were guilty of terrible crimes, the church as an institution bears no responsibility.”

Given the historical context—the scale of crimes committed during the genocide—the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Rwanda can and should play a decisive role in promoting reconciliation and justice. We owe as much to brave priests, nuns, and parishioners who stood for their faith and paid the heaviest price.

The inspirational, spiritual, political, and revolutionary leadership of Pope Francis offers optimism in this regard. In March 2014, the Holy See decided to set up a commission to “advise the church on the best policies to protect children, train church personnel and keep abusers out of the clergy,” and repair the Church’s reputational damage. The late Pope John Paul II acknowledged Catholic involvement in the persecution of the Jews in 2000, noting “the burden of guilt” that Christians bore “for the murder of the Jewish people.” Moreover, he made “a historic trip to Jerusalem, where he honored the victims of the Holocaust with a visit to Yad Vashem and prayed at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.” Therefore, an apology from the Vatican is a continuation of past and present commendable initiatives and would contribute significantly to reconciling the Catholic Church to Rwandans, particularly those who profess other faiths.

On the matter of promoting justice, Church leadership at the local and international level should encourage priests alleged to have committed crimes to face justice and at the very least revoke their right to exercise their priestly duty.

This is true of Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka:

Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka was notorious during the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis for wearing a gun on his hip and colluding with the Hutu militia that murdered hundreds of people sheltering in his church. A Rwandan court convicted the priest of genocide and sentenced him in absentia to life in prison. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda spent years trying to bring him to trial.  But the Catholic church in France does not see any of this as a bar to serving as a priest and has gone out of its way to defend Munyeshyaka.

Then there is Father Athanase Seromba, who “ordered the bulldozing of his church with 2,000 Tutsis inside and had the survivors shot.”

Catholic monks helped him get to Italy, change his name and become a parish priest in Florence.

After Seromba was exposed, the international tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, accused the Vatican of obstructing his extradition to face trial. The Holy See told her the priest was “doing good works” in Italy.

I will conclude by evoking the eternal words spoken by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ while on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” to testify that forgiveness is at the core of our faith. I know of many Rwandans who have forgiven neighbors who killed their family members during the genocide. These brave efforts are the cornerstone of reconciliation efforts in Rwanda. As a Catholic and a Rwandan, the Church’s leadership at home and abroad has a moral obligation to wholeheartedly apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the genocide and contribute to efforts aimed at bringing its perpetrators to justice.