Uneasy Tension: The Catholic Church’s History in Rwanda

Rwanda 2011

By Mary Rose Madden

April 13, 2012

Also aired on WYPR, an NPR affiliate

Today we bring you the second part of our series, "Rwanda's Next Steps: A Generation Living in Genocide's Aftermath".

In only 100 days between April and July 1994, 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were murdered by the majority Hutu group. Many of those being hunted tried to hide in the bush or sought refuge with a neighbor. Tens of thousands ran to their churches to seek protection. WYPR's Mary Rose Madden reports.

Nyamata Church.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

In the small town of Nyamata in eastern Rwanda, Martin Muyenzi points to the door of the small brick Catholic Church.

"As you can see, this door it was broken. This is the original door. It was broken, people were trying to shut the door and of course it wasn't possible. The militias broke the door and they entered and started killing the people."

Inside the church, it is as if time has stood still. The church benches that make a semi-circle around the altar are covered with piles of brown, ripped clothes. A sheet covers the altar. It is stained with blood. Rosary beads, a watch, wooden crosses, bullet holes in the ceiling "“ all remain, as if the victims of this massacre are still somehow here, praying for their lives.

"Even those who were trying to escape, they were killed."

At 7 a.m April 10th, 1994, ten thousand men, women, and children were hiding in this church.

The killers ringed the church with a fence to prevent escapes.

A reported 10,000 people sought refuge in Nyamata Church.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

Today, more than 40,000 Rwandans "“ genocide victims from across this province - are buried here. The past is especially present when one descends a staircase into a sunken crypt where skeletons of those victims are piled in the tiniest of rooms, on plywood bookcases floor to ceiling -no glass separating the visitor from the departed.

There were no clergy present at the Nyamata church massacre. But at other churches around the country, there were. Sometimes, the clergy members were there "“ bribing, negotiating for the lives of their parishioners. But at other churches, they watched, and even helped with the killing. Approximately 20 or so clergy have been brought to trial, be it in the International Courts or the Rwandan community courts called gacaca.

In 1994, more than 60 percent of Rwandans were Catholic and in 2010, a Pew survey found similar results.

Today, there is an uneasy tension when you mention the Catholic Church's history in Rwanda.

Sergio Ramos is a guide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Site. He was 13 years old in 1994 and remembers the day the militia came for his family.

Church pews at Nyamata Church.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

"They came in and asked us for our identity cards and they say that we knew you are a Tutsi family and you are going to die. They say you have to kneel down and pray and then we are going to kill you. My dad kneeled down and my mom came quickly and kneeled alongside my dad and started reciting this Catholic prayer."

Sergio says that was the last day in his family's house. He heard one of the soldiers say they would be back to kill them the next day. He and his family ran to their church. All over the country, many other Tutsis did the same when the Genocide started.

Sergio was an altar boy at the time and remembers seeing his priest that Spring day, eighteen years ago.

"I thought he was going to protect us. But, he was carrying a gun, a pistol."

Instead the priest guarded his parishioners as prisoners.

"The priest used to sometimes lead the mass and then after a few hours alerting the militia and come and pick people and kill them. You would hear them being hacked and killed."

After a day of killing, the militias would retreat for the night and come back the next day for more.

"Each and every day you count the day, maybe tomorrow I'll be killed or not. We started saying maybe those who were killed are now in peace and waiting each day."

Sergio remembers being trapped in that church for weeks.

The sunken crypt at Nyamata Church.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

Today, Sergio lives in Kigali with his mother and sisters. His father and brother were among the hundreds murdered at his church. He works at the memorial site, on one of Rwanda's many hillsides.

The church is about 100 yards from where Sergio now works six days a week.

His priest, who has never been held accountable for his role in the genocide was one of dozens across Rwanda who are reported to have assisted the killers.

The majority of Rwandan priests in 1994 were Tutsi and many were killed. But, seven of the nine bishops were Hutu. And the higher ups in the church were closely aligned with the Hutu-led government, according to experts.

In late May of 1994, The Vatican called for an end to the violence, but did not publicly acknowledge that the genocide was happening. It didn't affect the Rwandan archbishops. Many say it was too little too late. In March of 1996, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter expressing his sorrow for the genocide but exonerated the Catholic Church from the actions of the clergy who took part. Today, Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame condemns the Vatican for failing to do more.

Kigali's Genocide Memorial.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

"When I have seen the Catholic Church apologize for other crimes they have committed elsewhere you know abusing children in the churches in the United States Fair enough, But when I see that being done and silence about the serious abuse in Rwandan society and the genocide, when there is this silence, well I always some back to the point: maybe these societies are less important than other societies."

Kids' voices.

In the town of Rilima, south of Kigali young children are singing Catholic school songs.

"This song is about "John told Jesus this is Mary she's your mother this is the mother living for you''.

Children at the Kotemori Catholic Community Center.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

They're wearing American hand-me-downs like Duke jerseys, turtlenecks , and frilly flower girl dresses. The kids are jumping and dancing, kicking up dust as they sing in a circle.


They come here to sing and pray together, one teacher tells me. This is part of Kotemuri cooperative, a Catholic Community Center. Gloria Umtessa is a student- teacher here. She lived "“ and hid - in this village in 1994. She's twenty years old and has been working at this coop for five years. For a few minutes, she stands in the shade and explains how she teaches the history of the Genocide.

"The most question that children used to ask is how did the Genocide happen? Who were killing? Who were killed?"

Even though this is a Catholic run Center, Gloria says the church encourages the teachers to be honest with the children.

Gloria Umtessa and her students at the Kotemori Catholic Community Center.Photo: Mary Rose Madden

"Before they teach the children they go for trainings and they tell them that it is good to say the truth. The priests don't forbid them to teach the children they allow them to explain everything that happened."

Gloria says they refer to the clergy who assisted the killers as the "ugly Catholics". Gloria says, she's speaks openly about the past. She tells her students the truth and that gives her reason to believe that her church is on sturdy ground.

I'm Mary Rose Madden for 88-1, WYPR.

Mary Rose Madden reported from Rwanda on a Gatekeeper Editors trip with the International Reporting Project (IRP).