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Rwandan Churches Were Tainted by Tribal Politics, Official Says : Strife: Catholic and Protestant leaders were entangled with Hutu regime, says ecumenical leader after fact-finding trip. In many places, no formal structures are left.

From Religious News Service

Catholic and Protestant leaders in Rwanda betrayed their beliefs by aligning themselves far too closely with the former Hutu-dominated regime and its tribal politics, a high-ranking official of the World Council of Churches said in Geneva.

“In every conversation we had, with the government and church people alike, the point was brought home to us that the church itself stands tainted, not by passive indifference, but by errors of commission as well,” said Samuel Isaac, a deputy director to the ecumenical organization. He had just returned from a fact-finding mission to the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

“From what we have seen and heard, (this claim) was valid for all churches in Rwanda, Catholic and Protestant alike,” said Isaac, who had visited Kigali and refugee camps outside Rwanda’s borders in early August with officials of the Lutheran World Federation and the All Africa Council of Churches.

More than 500,000 Rwandans have died in the carnage that has pitted members of the Hutu and Tutsi tribes against one another in recent months. Isaac said that just as the entire nation must be reborn, so must religious institutions.

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There are virtually no official church structures left in Kigali, Isaac said. Church leaders have either been killed or are living as refugees outside the country.

At a news conference Thursday in Geneva, Isaac said that in one incident, a Roman Catholic Hutu priest allegedly shot 10 of his Tutsi parishioners who sought refuge in the church from massacres by the former government militia.

Religious leaders in Rwanda “had made a mistake in being too aligned to the previous regime,” Isaac told Ecumenical Press Service, the communications arm of the World Council of Churches.

“There is a general feeling which regretted that the church, which should have been promoting reconciliation, was unwittingly aligned with a regime that had built itself up over tribal lines,” he said.

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Hugh McCullum, spokesman for the All Africa Council of Churches and a member of the delegation, said Thursday in a telephone interview from Nairobi, Kenya, that the story of the priest’s alleged involvement has become widespread throughout church circles in Africa, but cannot be independently confirmed.

McCullum said he met the priest, who lived and worked in Kigali and was known as Father Wenceslas, on a previous visit to Rwanda and that the priest carried a gun.

A Tutsi refugee who had attended the priest’s church and later fled to Nairobi told McCullum that she had been in the church when the killings took place. But it was not clear from her comments how many people died or whether the priest committed the murders, McCullum said.

Willis Logan, director of the Africa Office of the New York- based National Council of Churches, said that given the horrific nature of the Rwandan conflict, any story about who committed specific acts of violence must be verified carefully.

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“On the surface, it doesn’t sound credible,” he said about the priest’s alleged involvement.

Ezekiel Pajibo, a lay Catholic and policy analyst with the Africa Faith and Justice Network, a Washington-based organization of Catholic missionary organizations, said the report did not surprise him. There have been numerous reports circulating of Hutu priests identifying Tutsi in their congregations, marking them for slaughter by Hutu forces.

Pajibo said Isaac’s comments reflect a prevailing assessment among many observers that the Rwandan church, rooted in Belgian colonialism, has been a compliant institution, first behaving according to colonial dictates and later having too close of a relationship with the former Hutu-led government.

“They need to see themselves in a new image,” Pajibo said. “They’re acting on the wrong side of history . . . which is why they have not played a major role in reconciliation efforts.”

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William Minter, associate director of information for the Washington Office on Africa, a church-linked group in the nation’s capital, said he, too, was not surprised at the report of church complicity, given the context of the war in Rwanda.

“Everyone was caught up in it,” said Minter.

He described the situation in Rwanda as “very comparable to what the German churches did in the Holocaust,” when some church leaders spoke out against atrocities and lost their lives while others turned the other way.

Though the general outlines of church activities in Rwanda suggest reason for alarm, said Minter, it is too early for finger-pointing.

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“My initial take on it,” he said, “is that I would be careful about blanket condemnations.”

In some cases, Minter said, people who did the killing may have been under threat of death themselves if they failed to follow orders.

But for generations, Minter said, the question “Did they resist?” will be asked over and over again in Rwanda. One important part of the answer, said Minter, will be “under what circumstances did they do it?”


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