4312Rwanda's religious reflections - BBC, UK
- Apr 1, 2004Rwanda's religious reflections
By Robert Walker
Twenty-year-old Zafran Mukantwari was the only person
in her family who survived the genocide.
I meet her sitting outside Kigali's Al-Aqsa mosque.
She is tightly veiled and speaks softly as she tells
me what happened 10 years ago.
Her family were Catholic, she says. Those who killed
them worshipped at the same church.
At the age of 10, Zafran found herself alone and at
first she continued going to church.
She thought she could find support there. But then she
began to question her faith.
"When I realised that the people I was praying with
killed my parents, I preferred to become a Muslim
because Muslims did not kill."
Before the genocide more than 60% of Rwandans were
And when the killings started, tens of thousands of
Tutsis fled to churches for sanctuary. But they found
little protection there.
Churches became sites of slaughter, carried out even
at the altar.
On the opposite side of Kigali from Al Aqsa mosque, is
the church of Sainte Famille. As dawn mass is
celebrated, the sound of hymns carries outside and
floats across the waking city.
During the genocide, hundreds of Tutsis crammed inside
here trying to escape the horrors unfolding outside.
But Hutu militias came repeatedly with lists of those
to be killed.
The priest in charge of the church, Father Wenceslas
Munyeshyaka, is blamed for colluding with the killers.
Discarding his priest's cassock, witnesses say he took
to wearing a flack jacket and carrying a pistol.
"Some members of the Church failed in their mission,
they contradicted what they stood for," says Father
Antoine Kambanda, director of the charity, Caritas, in
He acknowledges that while some priests and nuns
risked their lives trying to stop the slaughter,
others were implicated in the killings.
"We are sorry for what took place, sorry for the
members of the Church that did crimes, sorry for the
victims who lost their lives.
"But the Pope says the members who went against their
mission are to answer for it. The Church cannot answer
Turning to Islam
This position that blame lies with individuals, rather
the Church as an institution, is still highly
controversial, as Rwanda marks the tenth anniversary
of the genocide.
The Church hierarchy in Rwanda supported the previous
regime of President Juvenal Habyarimana. And they
failed to denounce ethnic hatred then being
Some survivors like Zafran have since left the
Catholic Church, unable to reconcile the Church's
teaching with the actions of its most senior members
during the genocide.
Sheikh Saleh Habimana, the Mufti of Rwanda, is the
representative of the country's Muslims.
He says many turned to Islam because Muslims were seen
to have acted differently.
"The roofs of Muslim houses were full of non-Muslims
hiding. Muslims are not answerable before God for the
blood of innocent people."
But after the genocide, converting to Islam was also
seen by some as the safest option.
"For the Hutus, everyone was saying as long as I look
like a Muslim everybody will accept that I don't have
blood on my hands.
"And for the Tutsis they said let me embrace Islam
because Muslims in genocide never die. So one was
looking for purification, the other was looking for
It was not only Islam that disillusioned Catholics
turned to after the genocide. Evangelical churches
have also flooded into the country in the past 10
years, and found many new recruits.
Sylvie Isimbi was hiding in a Catholic school with her
father and other Tutsis during the genocide.
When the militias finally broke in, her father was
Sylvia then watched friends and neighbours raped and
murdered. Afterwards she turned to one of the new
Pentecostal churches for support.
"We were Catholic before. But we had lost confidence
in human beings.
We thought God had left us. And with the Pentecostal
church we were comforted. We were able to cope with
But evangelical churches have come under fire for the
methods they use to recruit their new followers.
Father Antoine Kambanda says they have tried to lure
converts when they are at their most vulnerable,
spiritually and materially.
"People are very fragile now. Many are traumatised by
the genocide. So they use cheap solutions to attract
Father Kambanda believes some of those who left are
now returning to Catholicism.
"Often they are disillusioned and they come back. The
Catholic Church remains with the biggest number of
But today the Church is attempting to maintain this
position against the growth of both Islam and other
And 10 years on, it is still under pressure to accept
greater responsibility for the role of its own members
during the genocide.
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