By Elizabeth Neuffer Globe Staff, 12/12/96
Reprinted from The Boston Globe
Perched above a cluster of houses high in the terraced Rwandan hills, the red-brick Nyange parish church and its community of priests for years had been where the faithful turned in times of need.
Skulls remain as a memorial in a Rwandan church. Nyange, Rwanda - There was a Catholic church here once.
So when the Hutu-led militia began killing Rwanda's Tutsi minority in 1994, thousands fled here, expecting refuge.
Instead, they met their death. A local priest, Rev. Athanase Serumba, is accused by survivors of having urged on Hutu soldiers attacking the church, and of then ordering the church bulldozed to the ground with bodies and some wounded inside.
Sister Bernadette Mukarusine is accused of aiding the Hutu and failing to shelter Tutsi refugees when fighting began in 1994. (GLOBE PHOTO / THOMAS JAMES HURST)
Today, all that remains of the Nyange church are piles of weed-strewn rubble, with four wooden crosses marking mass graves. And this community's once stalwart faith in Catholicism also lies in ruins.
"I said, `Father, can you help me?'" recalled Charles Kagenza, who said he crawled from the demolished church only to be blinded and nearly beaten to death by the Hutu militia. `"He said, `I can't do anything for you.' How can I believe now?"
As Rwanda struggles to come to terms with its 1994 genocide and bring those responsible to justice, evidence is emerging of the complicity of members of the country's Catholic, Protestant and Adventist churches in the bloodshed that claimed the lives of more than 500,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu.
Human rights groups and survivors say that although clergy and religious workers were slain during the genocide, some while defending their congregation, others condoned or even encouraged the murders.
The International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda has indicted a Seventh Day Adventist minister. The French government has charged a Catholic priest with war crimes. Other priests and nuns have been accused of war crimes by Rwandan authorities and are in custody.
Rwandans and international officials are now debating how to punish these and other religious workers and what role their churches should play in acknowledging their guilt.
As a sign of how seriously the Tutsi-led Rwandan government takes the issue, a genocide law passed recently includes "religious officials" accused of genocide or crimes against humanity among those who are liable to receive the death penalty.
The issue is also deeply dividing religious communities here, eroding hopes that Christianity might play a major role in the country's reconciliation, particularly in light of the return last month of 700,000 Hutu refugees from Zaire. Among the refugees are many people suspected of having participated in killings.
Some members of the Rwandan clergy say Catholic and Protestant authorities should now acknowledge the churches' role.
"Without accepting the church's sin, its failure, there can be no reconciliation," says Rev. Ubald Rugirangoga, 40, a Catholic priest at Kigali's College of St. Andre who lost his entire family in the 1994 killings. "The church must say, `We failed, we apologize, we beg pardon.'"
But church leaders, including those of the Catholic church, which represents 65 percent of the population, have remained silent.
Catholic Archbishop Thaddee Ntihinyurwa, who would respond only to written questions about the genocide, wrote in response: "It is not the accused who must explain the accusations against them."
Earlier this year, Pope John Paul II, who earlier had condemned the killings, wrote that the Catholic church in Rwanda could not be blamed for acts by individual members.
"The church in itself cannot be held responsible for the misdeeds of its members who have acted against evangelical law," the pope wrote in a letter addressed to Rwandans. "All the members of the church who have sinned during the genocide must have the courage to bear the consequences of the deeds that they have committed against God and against their future."
In a country where many thousands flock to religious services on Sunday, it is hard to reconcile signs of outward faith with the fact that many here picked up machetes in 1994 to kill, maim, decapitate, plunder and rape their neighbors.
Churches that had been community and spiritual centers became killing grounds, where the Hutu-led militia attacked and killed thousands seeking sanctuary. Today, some churches are memorials, not houses of worship. In Ntarama Church outside Kigali, the capital, the bones of hundreds slain two years ago still litter the sanctuary.
Unlike in Bosnia, a country which is also wrestling with how to bring war criminals to justice, religious identity played no role in Rwanda's slaughter.
In Bosnia, the rebel Bosnian Serbs used fears of an Islamic invasion to justify attacks on the Muslim-led Bosnian Government. In Rwanda, ethnic slaughter had nothing to do with one's religion; the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority were found in all churches.
But Christian churches were featured prominently in the killingsjust as they have played a major role in Rwanda since 1931, when the Belgians crowned King Mutara III Rudahigwa. and he promptly converted to Christianity. Some missionaries, eager to make converts, linked economic assistance to assertions of faith.
Churches have not been exempt from Rwanda's pervasive racism. None challenged the country's political division into the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority, a distinction that is not generally physically recognizable.
"We were attached to our ethnic identity," Father Rugirangoga said. "When you are a priest and think you are a Tutsi or a Hutu, then it is impossible to reconcile people."
That sense of ethnic identity continues today. Some Hutu church leaders fled Rwanda and its Tutsi-led government and remain in exile. Anglican Archbishop Augustin Nshamihigo, for example, has set up a breakaway church in Nairobi.. Many priests remain in exile in Zaire, as does at least one Catholic bishop.
Some priests argue that the Roman Catholic Church, could have used its influence with the Hutu-led government to halt 1994's slaughter. The church was touched immediately by the violence: The first massacre in Rwanda was at the Jesuit Centre Christus in Kigali, where 17 people were killed, including seven priests.
But after condemning the unfolding genocide, as the pope did, church leaders did little else, many Rwandans say.
"The church did nothing during the genocide," said Rev. Octave Ugirashebuja. "It was the only organization able to stop the genocide. Now it doesn't want to admit it failed."
Some clergy disagree. "What did we have as means to defend people?" said Rev. Andre Sibomana, the head of the human rights group ADL, "Other than to say, stop,stop?"
In Shyorongi, a small village about 15 kilometers outside Kigali, survivors' accusations have put two nuns behind bars. Residents here accuse Sister Bernadette Mukarusine and Sister Benedicte Mukanyangezi, both members of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, of failing to shelter Tutsi refugees and, in one case, of encouraging a killing.
Several survivors charge that when Hutu soldiers came looking for Tutsi, the nuns pointed them out. Among those identified were refugees hiding in some of the religious buildings and Tutsi in the area hospital, survivors allege.
"They threw my brother out," said Gloriose Mukankubito. "He was weak, he couldn't find anywhere to hide, and the interahamwe (Hutu militia) killed him."
Boniface Sogokuru, a 17-year-old survivor who said that the nuns urged their gardener to attack him with a hoe, said: "Sisters Benedicte and Bernadette said, `This is a Tutsi - kill him' ... They thought I was dead, but at night I ran away."
Sister Mukarusine, interviewed in the Kigali prison, said she and Mukanyangezi were innocent.
"What could I do?" Sister Mukarusine said. "I wasn't someone important enough to do anything ... If people say I participated, it is because of Satan ... If Rwanda is like it is today, it is because people don't heed the church's message."
In the parish of Nyange, several of those arrested and accused of having participated in the killings have pointed to the involvement of Father Serumba, who is believed to be in Zaire. A worker who said he drove the bulldozer accused Father Serumba of having paid him for leveling the church.
Kagenza, who hid in the church tower, said he watched Father Serumba encourage the Hutu militia in their attack. He also said he saw Father Serumba meet with the driver before the church was bulldozed.
"People were screaming, crying," said Kagenza, "Everywhere, there were dead bodies ... I was in the tower ... when they realized they couldn't shoot us out of there, they brought the Caterpillar [tractor]..."
Kagenza said he survived by holding on to a beam when the tower toppled. Even then the Hutu militia found him in the rubble, beat him and left him for dead. Today he still bears the scars: a wound across the top of his head from a machete, and a deadened left eye, beaten with a club.
As he stood on the rubble of his former parish church, he said that until the church acknowledges that it failed Rwandans during the genocide, and examine what clergy did, he cannot return to church.
"But I still pray," says Kagenza. "I still believe in God."
Return from whence you came, or go back to Weirdness, Religion and Spam.