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Lest We Forget

Rwandans Deserve the Pontiff’s Apology Too

Jean Baptiste Kayigamba

16 July 2010

These is no single day that passes without new allegations of members of the Catholic Church clergy involved in sexual abuses of young children. Some of these cases extend over decades and cover all the continents. They have shaken the Roman Catholic Church to its foundation and, in some instances, some accusations have pointed to the current pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, as having played a role in pushing these abuses under the carpet, a charge that the Vatican has vehemently rebuffed.

Some revelations about these scandals initially surfaced in the United States. But this was just a beginning. Others were subsequently reported in South America, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Poland, Spain, Germany, Holland, the United Kingdom and in some African countries.

As the furore gathered momentum, the pontiff, as the church’s supreme leader, decided to intervene to stop the mounting criticism that senior members of the organisation – including him – have been involved in cover-ups and the obstruction of justice regarding these abuses. It is in this sense that in March 2010 the Pope issued a lengthy letter to Christians in Ireland.

Addressing the victims of these abuses and their families from Ireland, the pontiff wrote:

‘You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated… It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.'[1]

The aim of this essay is not to discuss these abuses as such, but to expose what I consider the double standards shown by the Vatican concerning other victims, namely those of the 1994 Tutsi genocide. We all recall that this tragedy took place over 16 years ago in broad daylight.

If he is able to say sorry to the victims of abuses in Ireland, why can’t say the same apology be made to Rwandans who, over 16 years ago, endured the suffering during one of the worst genocides of the last century, a genocide in which a great number of clergymen took part.

During these horrible moments, not only were these churches places where innocent men, women and children had sought refuge, hoping for protection. These sacred places quickly became slaughterhouses. Names like Ntarama, Ngenda, Kibeho, Kaduha, Nyange or Nyarubuye have become the symbols of the heinous crimes that were committed by Christians against Christians, sometimes with the complicity of the local clergymen.

Sixteen years after these atrocities were perpetrated, some of these holy places are still filled with the stench of the corpses of the people who were butchered. The question people continue to ask is how a country where more than 56 per cent claimed to be Roman Catholic could descend into such an unfathomable abyss. What is also shocking is the participation in the mass-killings by a large number of priests and nuns in these crimes.

One of the most cited cases is that of Father Athanase Seromba. According to African Rights, a London-based human rights organisation, at the height of the mass-killings, this ‘servant of God’ ‘used his authority as a priest to disarm local Tutsis and lure them on to church’. African Rights further indicates that ‘a large number surrounded the parish and used guns, grenades and machetes to kill the refugees. Seromba gave orders to the killers and shot those who tried to escape.'[2]

It is also alleged that because the marauding Hutu militias could not get into the church, Seromba ordered the demolition of the church while the Tutsi were still inside. Seromba’s involvement has been confirmed by 11 witnesses in his trial at the International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which sentenced him to life in prison.

Writing in the Guardian, Rory Carrol says that ‘father Seromba was one of dozens of clerics and nuns accused of atrocities that fled to Europe after a Tutsi force took power in Rwanda following the slaughter. With the Vatican’s help he moved to Italy, ostensibly to study, and under an assumed name, Father Anastasio Sumba Bura, served parish priest in a village near Florence.'[3]

So, why is that soon after the mass-killings in Rwanda in 1994, the Vatican strove to spirit away these clerics who were allegedly involved in one of the worst genocides of the last century, and assisted them in finding refuge in parishes in countries like France, Italy, Belgium and Spain, to name a few.

The case of Seromba is typical of the way the Roman Catholic Church has always endeavoured to help spirit away suspected ‘genocidaire’ clerics, and provide them with refuge in parishes in a number of European countries. Once discovered by Interpol, it is alleged that the Vatican did everything possible to thwart his extradition to the ICTR in Arusha, Tanzania, by pressurising the Italian government not to hand him over.

In her biography entitled ‘Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity’, Carla Del Ponte sheds light on the manoeuvring done by the Roman Catholic Church to help Father Seromba evade justice.

After several attempts to have the Italian government arrest Seromba, she was very frustrated and said: ‘It’s a scandal. Belgrade has handed over Milosevic, but Rome won’t grant me this arrest.'[4]

It was later suggested by the media ‘that the real reason why the government did not execute the arrest warrant [against Father Seromba] was pressure from the Vatican, which had been seeking ways to understate the role some members of the clergy had taken in the Rwanda genocide.’ The Vatican had earlier questioned the objectivity of a Belgian court that had found two Rwandan nuns guilty for crimes connected with the genocide.

It’s no wonder that every time a Roman Catholic cleric is mentioned in cases of atrocities that were committed in Rwanda, the Vatican belittles what happened and appears to suggest that the individuals concerned are being persecuted for who they are: members of the clergy.

Like Seromba, Father Emmanuel Uwayezu is another priest who was helped by the Catholic network to leave Africa and to settle in Florence, Italy, working as a deputy priest in the parish of Ponzano. Like Seromba, he slightly modified his name to Wayezu. But Interpol later caught him. According to African Rights, Father Uwayezu is responsible for the massacres of more than 80 students aged between 12 and 20 from Kibeho High School in southern Rwanda, of which he was a head teacher.[5]

Nevertheless, Father Guido Engels, the parish priest of Sant’Andrea in Empoli where Uwayezu had been living for over 15 years, defended his innocence, claiming that Uwayezu ‘never showed any resentment toward the other ethnic group [the Tutsi]; he constantly preached peace. There was and still is however unfortunately some people who blow on the fire with a spirit that is far from peaceful.'[6]

Very few leaders of the major denominations in Rwanda abstained themselves from taking part or abetting the mass-killings. But the difference is that unlike most of them, the Roman Catholic Church or affiliated organisations have never shown any contrition about the role of its clerics who have been indicted for crimes of genocide or crimes against humanity.

It is alleged that during the trial of two Rwandan nuns in Belgium in April 2001, the Vatican spokesperson Joaquim Navarro Valls questioned ‘the objectivity of a Belgian court’ that had found the defendants guilty of taking part in the massacre of 5,000 Tutsi refugees at Sovu Monastery in Butare, south of the Rwandan capital Kigali in 1994. He reportedly said: ‘The Holy See cannot but express a certain surprise at seeing the grave responsibility of so many people and groups involved in this tremendous genocide in the heart of Africa heaped on so few people.'[7]

Writing for Afrol News, Rainer C. Hennig observed that ‘the genocide shook all Christian churches, and provoked reactions of confessing guilty by most of them. Protestant congregations mostly asked Rwandans pardon for the atrocities committed by their members and excommunicated members suspected of forming part of the genocide. Anglican Bishop Samuel Musabyimana – he later died in the ICTR detention in Arusha – was excommunicated as charges against him were well known.'[8]

Alas, the stance of the Vatican and many of its priests before and after the genocide has not evolved very much. There were no known sanctions taken by the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy against fathers like Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, Seromba and others for the gravity of the crimes they allegedly committed. No wonder that during his trial, Seromba reportedly said: ‘A priest I am and a priest I will remain.'[9]

Knowing the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards the Holocaust and other serious human rights abuses, an apology from the current pontiff over the involvement of members of the church’s leadership in the 1994 Tutsi genocide would be mere fantasy.

His predecessor Pope John Paul II had only told Rwandans that ‘the Church … cannot be held responsible for the guilt of its members that have acted against the evangelic law.’

But what is more pressing than an apology is for the Roman Catholic Church to reassess its negative role in the sowing of the Hutu extremist ideology largely blamed for the 1994 Tutsi genocide. It is a well-documented fact that shortly before Rwanda’s independence in the early 1960s, the Belgian Governor Jean Paul Harroy and the then Archbishop of Rwanda Mgr Andre Perraudin helped certain Hutu elites to set the MDR Parmehutu Party, the brainchild of the ‘genocidal’ ideology that became the hallmark of contemporary Rwandan politics.

After over a century of civilisation and enlightenment and given the magnitude of mass-killings perpetrated on such large scale as the 1994 Tutsi genocide, the Catholic Church should at least go back to the drawing board and examine why its evangelisation mission was almost a total failure. How do you explain that those horrors happened in country where over 56 per cent were Catholic?

As Rwandans today show great resolve at working towards national reconciliation and putting this hideous past behind them, the Catholic Church should re-double its energies in preaching the ‘good news’ based on the love of ‘our neighbour’, as conveyed by the following excerpt from Matthew’s Gospel about love:

‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? And he said to him: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your entire mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself. One of these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’ (Matthew 22: 36-40).

Nobody expects Rwandans to love each other as indicated in the above scriptures. But at least they should be taught by all institutions, the Catholic Church included, to respect the sanctity of human life. That is where the work of the Roman Catholic Church, which has been involved in many aspects of national life for over a century, enters into play.

However, this cannot be achieved if its leadership – starting from the highest, the Holy See – does not acknowledge its failures and the betrayal of the Rwandan people in an hour of need. It is a well-known fact that the Roman Catholic Church was cosy with successive governments that were butchering its own people and driving thousands of others into exile. It kept silent in the face of these atrocities. In 1994, as indicated in this article, some members of the clergy were active participants in the plan to wipe out one section of the Rwandan population.

It is for this reason and for many more that, as in the cases of sexual abuse that tarred the image of the clergy, that Pope should direct an unambiguous apology to the victims of one of the worst genocides of the last century, the 1994 Tutsi genocide.


[1] Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland, 19 March 2010, page 3.

[2] ‘Catholics and Collusion in Genocide’ by Rupert Short in The Guardian, 21 July 2001.

[3] ‘Rwandan Priest Goes on Trial for Genocide’ by Rory Carrol in Guardian, 21 September 2001.


[4] Carla Del Ponte. Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity: A memoir (Chuck Sudetic). Milan: Felitrinelli Editore, 2008, page 190.

[5] African Rights. ‘Father Emmanuel Uwayezu in Italy. The Massacre of His Students at Kibeho College of Arts, 7 May 1994. Report issued in London/Kigali on May 2009.

[6] Rwanda Genocide: Priest Arrested in Tuscany. Misna, 21 Oct 2009.

[7] Carala Del Ponte. Ibid. p. 190.

[8] Rainer C. Hennig. ‘Rwanda. The Cross and the Genocide. The involvement of Christian Societies in the Rwandan Genocide.’ In Afrol News, 2001.

[9] Martin Kimani. For Rwandans, the Pope’s apology Must be Unbearable’ in The Guardian, 29 March 2010.


African Rights. Father Emmanuel Uwayezu in Italy. The Massacre of His Students at Kibeho College of Arts. London/ Kigali, May 2009.

Carrol, R. Rwandan Priest Goes on Trial for Genocide. The Guardian, 21 Sept. 2001.

Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland, 19 March 2010, page 3.

Del Ponte, C. Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity. Milan: Feltinelli Editore, 2008.

Heinig,R. C. ‘Rwanda. The Cross and the Genocide. The involvement of Christian Societies in the Rwandan Genocide.’ In Afrol News, 2001.

Kimani, M. ‘For Rwandans, the Pope’s Apology Must Be Unbearable’. The Guardian, 19 March 2010.

Misna. Rwanda Genocide: Priest Arrested in Tuscany. Misna, 21 Oct 2009.

Short, R. ‘Catholics and Collusion in Genocide’. The Guardian, 21 July 2001.

Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland, 19 March 2010.



One Response

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