Genocide in Rwanda, 30 years later. When fratricidal hatred lacerated even the heart of the Church

Wednesday, 3 April 2024 local churches   violence   area crisis

by Stefano Lodigiani

Rome (Agenzia Fides) - "Will it ever be possible to give an exact figure for the massacres, the wounded, the refugees, the orphans that the Rwandan drama has sown on African soil? The dimensions are those of a great tragedy, but the number of victims alone is not incalculable. It is disturbing to wonder how far and, above all, how long these seeds of violence will continue to poison the paths of a necessary reconciliation". The distressing questions were posed by Cardinal Jozef Tomko, Prefect of the then Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in an intervention published by Fides Agency and L'Osservatore Romano in June 1995, on the first anniversary of the assassination of the Archbishop of Kigali, Vincent Nsengiyumva, and of the Bishops of Kabgayi, Thaddee Nsengiyumva, and of Byumba, Joseph Ruzindana, murdered on 5 June 1994, along with ten priests who were accompanying them on their visit to the populations devastated by the homicidal violence. Their names were added to the long list of priests, men and women religious, seminarians, novices and pastoral workers murdered in the African country.

From 6 April 1994, when the plane on which the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were travelling was shot down by a missile in the sky over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to 16 July 1994, according to the accepted chronological connotation, the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus took place in Rwanda. The fundamental reason was racial hatred towards the Tutsi minority, who made up the social and cultural elite of the country. Official figures released at the time by the Rwandan government speak of 1,174,000 people who lost their lives in 100 days, murdered with machetes, axes, spears and clubs. Other sources cite one million dead. The extermination ended, at least officially, in July 1994, with the military victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, over government forces, an expression of the Tutsi diaspora. The trail of violence and racial revenge, however, continued for a long time.

Cardinal Tomko, in his speech the year after the tragedy, spoke of "more than two million people, that is, almost a third of the population, currently beyond the country's borders. The refugees crowded in camps - especially in Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) - are the image of a double drama: that of rights and dignity denied, and that of a mutilated nation". The Prefect of the Missionary Dicastery then referred to reconciliation as "the only possibility of salvation, the name of the hope to which all men have a right. And in a perspective of this nature, the Church's vast role fully emerges".

"A peculiar contribution in this sense comes from the work of the missionaries, capable of carrying forward the peace process without failure", Cardinal Tomko continued to highlight. A few months after the massacre, more than sixty had returned to their previous places of apostolate, "in the midst of populations exhausted by hunger, wounds and illnesses", as well as being committed to establishing links between refugees in neighboring countries and the Rwandan authorities to ensure their safe and dignified return home.
In the network of reconciliation woven by the Church, a second fundamental contribution was provided by the Seminaries, whose life is particularly flourishing in Rwanda. Regarding the local Church, therefore, "there are many who mobilize to lighten the burden it has to carry. The solidarity and spiritual, moral and other help shown are an excellent sign of that universality already mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles".

On the first anniversary of "the horrible Rwandan tragedy", the members of the Rwandan Bishops' Conference published "a message of solidarity and consolation" to all the Rwandan people, dated 30 March, 1995.
"The Catholic Church of Rwanda, as well as the entire country, was affected by the loss of a great number of her children. She shares the pain of all those who have been confronted with all kinds of misfortune: parents whose children have been taken away from them to be killed, orphans, widows, the wounded, handicapped, displaced, refugees in camps, traumatized; in a word, all those who have been confronted with horror in all its forms. The Church shares the suffering of all of them: she makes hers their tears, their pain, their complaints and their supplications, to the extent of her possibilities she accompanies them in their different situations".

A year after the massacres, the Rwandan Bishops called for a dignified burial of all the victims of the war, declaring themselves in favour of "the erection of memorial signs in memory of the dead". As always, "the Church continues to pray for the dead" they assured, inviting everyone "to mobilize for a dignified burial of the remains of the victims who are still on the hills... We insistently ask that the ceremonies for the burial of the remains of the victims of the Rwandan tragedy be free of all those gestures and words that provoked and aggravated the conflict".

In the conclusion of the message, the Bishops reiterated "their condemnation and disapproval of the massacres and genocide that marked the past year", and then urged "all those who love peace, to hinder and combat any project that could lead to a repetition of such a tragedy. This is an absolute law of God: everyone wants their life to be respected, everyone therefore must respect the lives of others and act accordingly".

The Via Crucis of the Rwandan people lived in the heart of the Church

The tragedy experienced by the Rwandan people coincided with a historic event for the Church of the Continent, which should have filled it with joy and hope: the First Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, on the theme "The Church in Africa and its evangelizing mission towards the year 2000: 'You shall be my witnesses' (Acts 1:8)". This Synod, convened by the Holy Father John Paul II in 1989, was held in the Vatican from April 10 to May 8, 1994, within the framework of the continental Synods on the theme of evangelization in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. The echo of the tragic events that bloodied Rwanda resounded and amplified in a special way in the heart of Christianity, where the representatives of the Bishops from all over the African continent gathered around the Successor of Peter, who did not stop invoking reconciliation and peace.

On 9 April 1994, in an initial message addressed to the Catholic community in Rwanda, Pope John Paul II pleaded "not to give in to feelings of hatred and revenge, but to courageously practice dialogue and forgiveness". " At the tragic stage of the life of your country", the Pope wrote, "be builders of love and peace".
In the solemn opening mass of the special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa, celebrated in St. Peter's on Sunday, 10 April 1994, which the Bishops of Rwanda were unable to attend, the Pope expressed deep concern for the African country, "tormented by age-old tensions and bloody strife". During his homily, he recalled in particular "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". Speaking on behalf of the 315 participants at the Synod, and "in spiritual communion with the Bishops of Rwanda unable to be with us today", the Pontiff launched an appeal 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 Synod for Africa, the first of its kind, was inevitably marked not only by the study and debate collected in the Instrumentum laboris, but also 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, (Cardinals Francis Arinze, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Christian Wiyghan Tumi, Archbishop of Garoua, Cameroon, and Paulos Tzadua, Archbishop of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), 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 organizations 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, CICM, 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 reality of a 'Synod of Resurrection, Synod of Hope' was highlighted. At a time in history when "so much fratricidal hatred tears our peoples apart", the bishops who had participated in the Synod wanted to pronounce "a word of hope and consolation". "A large part of the territory of the African continent is being put to the sword", they wrote. The cry of the peoples of Rwanda, Sudan, Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the central region of Africa pierces our hearts". After paying homage to the heroic effort made by missionaries of several generations, the Message declared the beginning of a new phase in the history of evangelization of the African continent. "In thanksgiving for the gift of faith we have received, animated by great joy, we turn towards the year 2000 that is on the horizon," they wrote at the end of the Message. "We are full of hope and determined to share the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ".

On Sunday, 15 May 1994, the Holy Father recited the Regina Coeli prayer from the Gemelli Hospital, where he was hospitalized after a fall, and once again recalled the agony of the Rwandan people: "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".

The Union of Superiors General, at the end of the assembly held from 25 to 28 May 1994 in Ariccia, near Rome, issued a message in which the Superiors were "very concerned about the situation of our confreres in Rwanda and for those who are suffering the agony of a forced absence from their beloved country". "This crisis that has afflicted the people, also deeply touches the life of the Church," the text emphasized, expressing solidarity with the people, the Church and its Pastors, as well as with all the confreres, men and women religious in the African country. "While violence saddens us, we also rejoice at the many acts of heroism, courage and Christian witness manifested by many people and by our many confreres. The witness and blood of the martyrs will certainly be the cornerstone of a new Christian presence in these countries". The Superiors General urged us to reflect on the causes of this dramatic situation, and at the same time to act decisively: "Each of us has a role to play at this time. Efforts to restore peace and to alleviate the suffering of the victims of this conflict require the active participation of everyone".
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 experiencing 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 in favor of 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".
At the initiative of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and with the consent of the Pontiff, on 15 June 1994, in the Vatican Basilica, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, Prefect of the Missionary Dicastery, presided over a Holy Mass "for peace in Rwanda and in suffrage for the victims". Thirty-nine Cardinals concelebrated, in addition to 24 Archbishops and Bishops and 200 priests. Numerous men and women religious were present, many of African origin, as well as a large assembly of faithful who joined in the prayer. In his homily, Cardinal Tomko reported on the situation in Rwanda, which he described as "apocalyptic": "Every day, new news and inhuman images of horrendous massacres perpetrated by all sides against the civilian population, including the elderly, women and children, are relayed to the world by television, radio and the press". The Rwandan Church has seen three Bishops killed, another is recovering from his wounds in a neighbouring country, the Cardinal recalled. Rwanda has also lost 25 per cent of its priests and hundreds of women religious, not to mention the disbanded faithful, the fleeing or divided families, and two million refugees.
"No more massacres! No more bloodshed! Today's situation challenges the conscience of mankind on the responsibility to intervene for humanitarian reasons", the Cardinal exclaimed forcefully, and in his conclusion he invoked reconciliation and love as "the watchword and lasting solution to every conflict, and in particular the conflict in Rwanda".
From 23 to 29 June 1994 Pope John Paul II sent 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 most war-torn dioceses, the sites of the murdered bishops and met on separate occasions, the interim President of the Republic and the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. To both of them he read a Message addressed to the entire Rwandan people: 'Now, having touched the depths of horror, you can no longer hide anything of your misery. Do not be discouraged, convert your heart, take advantage of this terrible lesson of your history that is perhaps your last chance to understand how far your conversion must go... It is not enough to say: I want peace, you must make peace by accepting to pay the price which is very high in Rwanda... After so many nefarious massacres even in your churches, which have become places of massacre of innocents, after the destruction of your homes, your schools and your social centres, it is more and more your hearts that are wounded... I have come among you in the name of Pope John Paul II to comfort a weakened Church, disintegrated, decapitated by the murder of three bishops, numerous priests, men and women religious... One day you will see the rightness of the word that makes the Church live from century to century: 'the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians'. Rwandan people, you are called by God to begin a new page in your history, written by all your brothers shining with mutual forgiveness".
From 2 to 4 September 1994, the Rwandan Bishops met in Butare to examine, among other issues, the resumption of activities in the parishes and in other areas of the apostolate. In the presence of the representatives of the Holy See in Rwanda and delegates of the Churches of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) which were hosting a large number of refugees who had fled Rwanda, the Bishops met a representative of the new government in Kigali, to ask for guarantees of security for pastoral workers, in view of the resumption of their work. In a message addressed to the priests, religious and seminarians who had fled abroad to escape the tragedy they had experienced in the previous weeks, they wrote: "Aware of the immense work of moral and spiritual reconstruction that awaits us in our country, and taking into account the evolution of the situation, we invite you to return to the country. Although security conditions cannot be one hundred per cent guaranteed, we have the moral obligation to be the watchful eye of the people to preserve them from arbitrariness...Our presence is necessary to put the Church back on its feet and allow it to play its irreplaceable role of light and leaven in society". (Agenzia Fides, 3/4/2024)