Religion and the Legacy of the Rwandan Genocide

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, the worst mass killing since the Holocaust and one of the great tragedies of human history. In 1994, amidst long-simmering social tension and armed conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups, a radical Hutu faction took control of the Rwandan government and launched a country-wide campaign to eradicate the Tutsi from the country. Over merely 100 days, 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsi (as well as moderate Hutu who opposed the violence) were killed by militias and roving bands of killers, supported and encouraged by the state. Rwanda was essentially abandoned by the rest of the world, and the genocide ended when the Génocidaires were defeated by Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-dominated rebel group that seized power and continues to rule the country to this day.

Despite post-colonial political hostilities, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda shared the same culture – they lived in the same neighborhoods and often intermarried, spoke the same languages, and practiced the same faith. Christianity was supposed to be part of the glue that held Rwandan society together, but when the genocide started, ethnic affiliations quickly trumped religious ones. The Catholic Church, Rwanda’s largest religious institution, has taken the most blame for complicity with regard to the 1994 genocide. While many individual priests attempted to shield victims and were often killed for their efforts, others actively participated in the slaughter, even turning over those who had sought refuge in their local churches. The top Catholic leadership, dominated by Hutu bishops, largely equivocated, downplaying the genocide and recasting it as a civil war with fault on both sides. These bishops paid dearly for their role in the slaughter. The surging RPF killed three of them, alongside several other priests, during the takeover in June 1994.

The Catholic Church, possibly hoping to defend itself against lingering hostility within Rwanda, has been very slow in acknowledging its role in the genocide. When Catholic bishop, Augustin Misago was arrested in 1999 and tried for his alleged role in the genocide, the Church stood behind him. A Kigali court acquitted Misago in 2000, and he continued to serve as bishop of his diocese until his death in 2012. As recently as 2016, the Church was being heavily criticized for standing by priests who had been convicted of participating in the genocide. Nevertheless, after years of either ignoring he actions of its own clergy or dismissing the conduct of individual priests and nuns who participated in the genocide as rogue activities, Rwandan Catholic bishops finally apologized for the Church’s role in the slaughter in 2016. Pope Francis followed suit the next year, asking for forgiveness during a meeting with President Kagame.

For many Rwandans, however, these efforts are too little and much too late. The genocide severely damaged the reputation and moral authority of the Rwandan Catholic Church, and many Rwandans have turned to other faiths. Anglicanism, practiced by many in the RPF (who spent years in exile in neighboring Uganda, an English speaking country where the Anglican Church is popular) grew in prominence within Rwanda after 1994. The socially conservative Anglican Church even made institutional connections with a group of right-leaning American Episcopal churches (which were dissatisfied by the American church’s leftward advances on LGBTQ issues), further strengthening the Rwandan Anglican Church’s clout. Pentecostalism, alongside other Evangelical and independent churches, has been ballooning in Rwanda as well. This latter trend has led to a government crackdown on the proliferation of these small churches – over 700 were shut down recently, and the government has proposed stricter regulations on those remaining. (authorities argue that many of them are led by individuals who lack necessary formal training, and that many of these congregations exploit poor and vulnerable communities).

A significant number of Rwandans also left Christianity altogether and turned to Islam, a formerly marginal religion. After Rwandan Muslims gained a reputation for shielding would-be victims of the genocide, interest in the faith skyrocketed, with estimates for the growing Rwandan Muslim community as high as 14% of the total population. Overall, the horrors of the genocide have not caused Rwandans to lose their faith, but they did change – perhaps permanently – the religious allegiances to which that faith is tied.

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