Activists are upset that Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County is hosting Rwandan President Paul Kagame at Sunday’s service in remembrance of the 1994 genocide in the east African country, blaming the country’s leader for brutally suppressing his opponents “to save his dictatorship.”
Warren invited Kagame to speak “as we join our Rwandan brothers and sisters in remembering the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and thank God together for the renewal the country has experienced over the last 25 years,” according to an announcement of the event. The president was scheduled to talk at morning services and a reception afterward.
Warren, bestselling author of “The Purpose Driven Life” who has hosted presidents at his Christian megachurch in Lake Forest, was expected to interview Kagame on stage.
“Why would he give attention to someone who has closed thousands of churches and who has consistently denied human rights to his own people?” questioned Aristide Rwigara, the younger brother of Diane Rwigara, who ran against Kagame for president and whom he imprisoned along with her mother and sister after he came to power, according to her family.
“This cannot go unchallenged. Warren is a global figure, and if you want to wear the mantle of spiritual leadership, why would you do this? I used to think he was the real deal, and then I found out that he backed the government — a government that stifles all manner of opposition, that has no humanity,” said Rwigara, who lives in Los Angeles where he works as a translator.
A spokesperson for the church could not be reached for comment.
Kagame has ruled Rwanda since 2000. He led the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel force that took control of the capital, Kigali, during the 1994 genocide and ended the massacre in which 800,000 people were killed by dominant Hutu forces over a three-month period.
Kagame has been credited with revitalizing his country’s economy, boosting access to healthcare and education and pushing for more women to get involved in politics — 64% of Rwandan legislators are women, the highest around the world.
But critics say he is also the driver of an authoritarian regime where opponents are routinely jailed or killed under mysterious circumstances. In 2016, Kagame announced to the nation that he would seek a third presidential term after Rwanda’s parliament voted in favor of changes to the constitution that could allow him to run and stay in power until 2034.
Critics say Warren serves as a personal advisor to Kagame, noting that his own son lived and was educated in Rwanda.
“They think this guy is a savior, but they’re wrong. To invite him is like inviting Hitler to a Holocaust remembrance event,” said Christine Coleman, a pastor and human rights activist from Rwanda who now leads the Blazing Holy Fire Church in suburban Denver.
Coleman had been organizing opposition against the Saddleback gathering and said she didn’t believe “a pastor should invite such a wicked person into his church. Why should people listen to a man who does not even allow his own citizens to dissent freely?”