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Rwanda's Laity Isn't Forgetting

During the 1994 massacres, not even churches were safe. Clergy are among the charged, and the nation is in a spiritual crisis.

September 30, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

NYANGE, Rwanda — In the end, Charles Kagenza's faith was stronger than the hallowed hall that once stood here. Even after all that has happened, Kagenza wanted to come to the Catholic church -- where he still prays every Sunday for God's grace, the place where thousands were forsaken.

In fact, the proud brick temple that overlooked three valleys is gone. There's just rubble, a couple of lonely pillars and a large mass grave.

Small and somber, Kagenza, 41, has a crease in his scalp and a blanched eye set in a broken socket, testament to the wounds he suffered here nine years ago. In this tiny mountain village, the half-blind stonemason is the only living witness to the final days of Nyange Catholic Church.

"When the killings began, many of the Tutsis in this village ran to the parish because we had the hope that none would have the courage to attack the church," Kagenza said. "In 1973, there were also massacres and many fled to the churches and survived. So we had trust in the parishes and the priests."

For about 100 days in 1994, Rwanda went absolutely mad. Militiamen, police officers, national troops and civilians led by the ethnic Hutu government engaged in a carefully organized government plan to kill people believed to be Tutsis, an ethnic minority in Rwanda, and Hutus sympathetic to them.

Not even churches were safe. Thousands of people ran to chapels for refuge, but most of the time church authorities were unable to stop the Hutu attackers. In a few cases, priests and nuns were unwilling to help, and some even turned against their flocks.

According to estimates by war crimes prosecutors, about 20 Catholic officials are awaiting trial in Rwanda's genocide courts and a number of others are under investigation. Two-thirds of Rwandans are members of the Roman Catholic Church, the most influential institution in the country after the government.

Compared with the 120,000 Rwandans awaiting trial for involvement in the genocide, the number of suspected church employees is small. And priests were also victims of the slaughter, which left an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead.

But much as molestation scandals have rocked the Catholic Church in the United States, genocide prosecutions of nuns and pastors have marred the Rwandan church's reputation and plunged the country into a deep spiritual crisis, according to religious leaders and adherents.

The church's image has been further damaged, many parishioners and critics say, by the Vatican's refusal to accept any blame for the genocide on behalf of the Rwandan church. Two years after the slaughter, Pope John Paul II said individual church officials should be held accountable for any crimes, but he denied any institutional responsibility for the genocide, even though the church has had close links with every Rwandan government since the country gained independence in 1962, including the regime that planned the killings.

The church's critics note that while the Vatican has deflected collective blame, it has paid legal fees for accused church officials, aided fugitives from the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, denounced genocide prosecutions and occasionally tried to discourage war crimes witnesses from testifying against church employees.

"The Catholic Church has lobbied against the courts and against other reconciliation efforts as the government tries to rebuild the country," said Privat Rutazibwa, a Rwandan journalist and former Catholic monk.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the church's actions have driven many Rwandans away from Catholicism. Pentecostal churches are on the rise as Catholics have switched to Protestant denominations. Other Catholics have turned to Islam, although that remains a small minority faith in Rwanda.

But the most pervasive sign of Rwanda's spiritual struggle, according to many Rwandan Catholics, is a shift in the way many church members worship. Many Catholics say their disappointment in the church hasn't broken their faith -- but it has been tempered.

Church members such as Dancila Nyirabazungu say they believe in God and even the sanctity of the church, but don't trust their priests.

"The priests did nothing for us," said Nyirabazungu, who lost 17 relatives at Ntarama Catholic Church, in southeastern Rwanda. "We used to think the priests were without sin. We used to think they had the role of God. But they're like everyone else. And the church is just a house where you can pray without the sun shining on your head."

Kagenza, who survived the Nyange church massacre here in western Rwanda, said, "I don't put my faith in priests anymore, I just believe in God."

On April 10, 1994, Kagenza and thousands of other Tutsis packed into the church to escape marauding militias. On April 15, Kagenza looked down from his hiding place in the bell tower and saw a Hutu horde massing around the parish.

Days of Horror

Hutus attacked the church over the next two days, firing automatic weapons and tossing grenades through windows.

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