Church Abetted Tragedy in Rwanda, Priest Says

By Collins, Carole | National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 1994 | Go to article overview

Church Abetted Tragedy in Rwanda, Priest Says


Collins, Carole, National Catholic Reporter


Why did the Catholic church do so little to stop the genocidal carnage in Rwanda? How could such violence occur in a country where 90 percent of the people are Christian and 62 percent call themselves Catholic, where the Catholic church was, "after the government, the single most powerful institution"?

These are the uncomfortable but compelling questions posed by an article in a September publication of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa. AMECEA groups the Catholic bishops' conferences from eight poverty-stricken nations in this conflictriven region: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

The article was written by Fr. Wolfgang Schonecke, a member of the German Missionaries of Africa, White Fathers, who worked with Rwandans for many years in Uganda. In June he was designated the secretary -- and first head -- of AMECEA's newly created pastoral department, set up to assist AMECEA members' national pastoral programs and to share pastoral initiatives with those inside and outside the East African region.

But the issues raised by his article apply far beyond the borders of the impoverished, Vermont-sized nation in East Africa now infamous for the low-tech slaughter of more than 1 million civilians contrived by Hutu militias bent on exterminating both Hutu and Tutsi opponents.

Schonecke recounts how ethnic hatred and fear, rooted in a history of reciprocal tensions and periodic pogroms -- and exacerbated by Belgian colonial favoritism toward Tutsis -- obviously contributed to Rwanda's recent horrors. But he goes on to detail the church's failure to address its own cultural and ethnic tensions, especially among the clergy. "How can we create a true sense of church as family," he asks, "where ethnic, cultural and religious differences are lived as complementarity, not as competition? How can we foster a people's search for cultural identity in society and the church without losing the sense of national unity, of international community and of religious catholicity?"

Contrary to the popular view that the Rwandan tragedy was solely ethnic in origin, Schonecke links the massacres to other factors, which also call into question the role played by the Catholic church in the Rwandan conflict.

The first of the causes he lists is "an obsession with obtaining and retaining power at any price, including the use of violence." Schonecke chronicles both the former ruling Hutu clique's adamant refusal to share any power with its critics, as well as past anti-civilian violence by the current Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front government, which ousted the former rulers.

He also details how Rwanda's Catholic hierarchy maintained "cozy relations" with a series of rulers -- first the Belgian colonial administration, then the Tutsi royal house and later the Hutudominated regime headed by the late President Juvenal Habyarimana -- all of whom felt justified in violently repressing their opponents. Indeed, the late Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva belonged for years to the Hutu ruling party's central committee which planned the recent genocidal campaigns.

While some church groups worked for justice, human rights and democracy, their efforts were undercut by a hierarchy "too closely linked with the ruling regime to be a credible voice of protest."

"How can the church resist the temptation to use power in its mission and in turn to be used by the political powers?" Schonecke asks. Can it stand apart from the "power struggle of persons and groups and focus on the real and important issues of justice for all?" More pointedly, he asks, "Do we speak up for any group treated unfairly or only when church interests are threatened? ... Can we develop in the church a more participatory style of leadership as a model for a more democratic style of leadership in politics?"

Schonecke also blames a sense of hopelessness generated by rampant unemployment and the negative social effects of International Monetary Fund programs. …

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