Vatican City (Fides Service) - As soon as the first reports of killings in Rwanda began to arrive Pope John Paul II did not hesitate to raise his voice to call for reconciliation and peace. On 9 April 1994 in a message to the Catholics of Rwanda, the Pope begged them “not to give way to feelings of hatred and revenge but to courageously practice dialogue and forgiveness”. “At the tragic stage of the life of your country, be builders of love and peace”.
During the solemn and festive Mass for the opening of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa on Sunday 10 April 1994, which the Bishops of Rwanda were unable to attend, the Pope voiced deep concern with regard to Rwanda, “tormented by age-old tensions and bloody strife”. During his homily he mentioned “the people and the Church in Rwanda suffering at the moment from a terrible tragedy linked also with the tragic death of the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. With you Bishops I share this suffering in the face of a new catastrophic wave of violence and death which is afflicting that beloved nation, causing bloodshed in amazing proportions including the blood of priests, religious and catechists, victims of absurd hatred. With you gathered here for this African Synod and in spiritual communion with the Bishops of Rwanda unable to be with us today, I feel it is my duty to appeal to people to stop the homicidal hand of the violent. With you I raise my voice to say to all: Enough with this violence! Enough with tragedies! Enough with fratricidal slaughter!”.
After the Mass on the same Sunday at recitation of the Regina Coeli prayer, Pope John Paul II repeated his appeal for Rwanda: “Tragic news from Rwanda causes great suffering in the hearts of all. A new unspeakable tragedy: the heads of state of Rwanda and Burundi and their entourage assassinated; the Rwandan head of government and his family slaughtered; priests, Religious men and women killed. Everywhere hatred, revenge, bloodshed of brothers. In the name of Christ we beg you, lay down your arms! Do not render vain the price of Redemption, open your heart to the peace offered by the Risen Lord! I urge the leaders of the international community not to tire of searching for ways to put an end to such destruction and death”.
The work of the Special Synod for Africa, the first of its kind, was affected by the news coming from Rwanda. On April 14 the Pope celebrated Mass for the people of Rwanda and the members of the Synod launched a pressing Message for reconciliation and negotiations for peace in Rwanda. In the Message, signed by the three Delegate Presidents, the Synod fathers said they were “deeply grieved by the tragic events” and they called on all those involved in the conflict “to silence the arms and stop the killings”. They called on Rwandans “to walk together and to solve their problems through dialogue” and on persons and organisations present in Africa or outside Africa, to “use their influence to bring forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in all Rwanda”. The Message was a reply to a letter from the Rwandan Bishops unable to attend the Synod because of the tragedy in their country. In the letter read to the assembly by Cardinal Schotte, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, the Rwandan Bishops said “we deplore and denounce homicidal violence being perpetrated all over the country, we ask for solidarity and prayers that the warring parties will undertake negotiations for peace”. In the closing message of the Synod dated 6 May 1994, the Bishops taking part in the Synod affirmed that “fratricidal hatred” which was lacerating this African people and the “cry of the people of Rwanda” came sadly in addition to violence happening “over a good part of the continent of Africa”.
On Sunday 15 May 1994 the Pope led the recitation of the Regina Coeli prayer from the Gemelli Hospital where he was receiving treatment after a fall and once again he mentioned the agony of the people of Rwanda: “I feel it is my duty to recall again today the violence of which the people of Rwanda are victims. This is genocide, for which sad to say also Catholics are responsible. Day after day I am close to this people in agony and I would address the consciences of those who plan and execute this violence. They are pushing the country to the edge of an abyss. All will have to answer for their crimes before history, and first of all, before God. Enough with bloodshed! God expects all Rwandans with the help of friendly countries to have the courage of forgiveness and brotherhood ”.
After learning that 3 bishops and 20 priests and religious had been killed, on 9 June 1994 Pope John Paul II addressed a message to the people of Rwanda saying: “I am profoundly dismayed at the news coming from your country. The dramatic situation which Rwanda is living because of the terrible, lacerating conflict, brings me to beg God, the Father of Mercy, and Christ who gave his life for mankind, to bring about the reconciliation of this martyred nation and to welcome the dead with mercy”. The Pope called on all the people of Rwanda and the nation’s leaders to do “everything possible to find paths of concord and reconstruction for the country so gravely damaged…Bishops and faithful, people of Rwanda, know that I am with you every day.”
At the end of a special Concistory held on 13 and 14 June 1994, the Cardinals unanimously approved an appeal for Rwanda expressing their anguish “for the unspeakable horror which the people of Rwanda is experiencing”. “In God’s name we beg all those involved in the conflict to lay down their arms and to work for reconciliation…this great tragedy in Rwanda demonstrates the urgent need for the nations of the world to clarify ways of humanitarian intervention in juridical terms ... The absence of such juridical norms continues to render the nations of the world helpless in the face of tragedies such as the one which is threatening the lives of so many innocent people in Rwanda”.
From June 23 to 29, 1994, the Pope sent French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, President of the Pontifical Councils Justice and Peace and Cor Unum, to Rwanda on a mission of solidarity and peace. The Cardinal visited the dioceses most affected by the violence, the places where the Bishops were assassinated and he met on different occasions the President ad interim and the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. To both he read a message addressed to the people of Rwanda in which he said: “Now, that you have reached the depth of horror, you can hide nothing of your misery. Do not be discouraged, convert your heart, learn from this terrible lesson of your history which is perhaps the last chance to realise from where your conversion must come... It is not enough to say: I want peace. Peace must be made accepting the price which is very high in Rwanda... After so many wicked massacres (this is the word of the Pope) even your churches have become places where the innocent are massacred. After the destruction of your homes, your schools, your social centres, it is your heart which is most wounded... I have come to you on behalf of Pope John Paul II to comfort a Church which is weakened, shattered, decapitated with the killing of three bishops, many priests and religious men and women... One day you will realise the truth of the words which make the Church live century after century: ‘the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians’. People of Rwanda, you are called by God to turn a new page in your histyory, a page to be written by all of you together resplendent in reciprocal forgiveness. Believe me it is a question of your honour as human persons and as Christians”. (S.L.) (Agenzia Fides 6/4/2004 - Righe 88; Parole 1328)