Pope Francis has asked for forgiveness for the Catholic church’s role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days of violence. The “sins and failings of the church and its members” had “disfigured the face” of Catholicism, he said.
Speaking after meeting the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, the Vatican acknowledged that some Catholic priests and nuns had “succumbed to hatred and violence” by participating in the genocide.
According to the Vatican, Francis “expressed the desire that this humble recognition of the failings of that period, which unfortunately disfigured the face of the church, may contribute to a ‘purification of memory’ and may promote, in hope and renewed trust, a future of peace”.
Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu extremists in a wave of violence sparked by the death of the Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana – a Hutu – when his plane was shot down. Violence spread from the capital, Kigali, throughout the country, encouraged by the presidential guard and radio propaganda.
The killing was led by a militia called the Interahamwe, but ordinary citizens were urged to join in. In some cases, Hutus were forced by military personnel to murder their Tutsi neighbours.
About 200 priests and nuns – Tutsi and Hutu – were among those slaughtered. But other priests and nuns were complicit, or even took part, in the violence. Thousands of people were butchered in churches where they sought refuge. An estimated 5,000 people were killed at the Ntarama Catholic church on 15 August 1994: the site is now one of six major memorials in Rwanda.
One priest, Father Athanase Seromba, ordered his church to be bulldozed with 2,000 Tutsis sheltering inside. Another, Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, helped draw up lists of people to be killed and raped young women, according to charges issued by the UN’s international criminal tribunal for Rwanda in 2005.
The Catholic church was compromised by its longstanding political ties to the ruling Hutu elite. Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva sat on the ruling party’s central committee for nearly 15 years even as it implemented policies that discriminated against Tutsis.
Once the massacres started, instead of using his political affiliations to urge the regime to stop the killing, he refused even to call it genocide. Witnesses said he stood by as Tutsi priests, monks and a nun were taken to be murdered.
The Vatican statement said that the pope “implored anew God’s forgiveness for the sins and failings of the church and its members, among whom priests, and religious men and women who succumbed to hatred and violence, betraying their own evangelical mission.”
Last year, Rwanda’s Catholic bishops apologised for “all the wrongs the church committed” during the genocide. Their statement acknowledged church members planned, aided and carried out the genocide, and that the local church had later resisted efforts by the government and groups of survivors to acknowledge the church’s complicity in mass murder.
A report on the genocide commissioned by the Organisation of African Unity said the church in Rwanda had offered “indispensable support” to the Hutu regime during the killing, and that church leaders had played a “conspicuously scandalous role” in the genocide by failing to take a moral stand against it.
“This stance was easily interpreted by ordinary Christians as an implicit endorsement of the killings, as was the close association of church leaders with the leaders of the genocide,” it said.
For two decades following the genocide, the Vatican maintained that although individual clergy had committed terrible crimes, the church bore no institutional responsibility.
After the genocide, a Catholic network helped priests and nuns who had been complicit in the violence to reach Europe and evade justice. Munyeshyaka took charge of a Catholic church in Gisors, in northern France, while Seromba changed his name and became a parish priest in Florence.
Carla del Ponte, the international tribunal’s chief prosecutor, later accused the Vatican of obstructingSeromba’s extradition to face trial.
The pontiff’s meeting with Kagame at the Vatican on Monday was a “positive step forward”, the Rwandan government said.
“Today’s meeting was characterised by a spirit of openness and mutual respect,” said a statement from the Rwandan foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo. “It allows us to build a stronger base for restoring harmony between Rwandans and the Catholic church.”
However, she added, “genocide denial and trivialisation continue to flourish in certain groups within the church and genocide suspects have been shielded from justice within Catholic institutions”.
Philip Gourevitch, the author of We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, an account of the genocide, said the pope’s statement was “a significant change of tone” but not an apology.
“It’s a significant step towards acknowledging the deep stain on the church. But there have been some well-documented cases of the church whisking out of Rwanda suspected genocidal priests and sheltering them from attempts to hold them accountable,” he told the Guardian.
The population of Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, is overwhelmingly Christian, with similar numbers of Roman Catholics and Protestants. Since the genocide, many Catholics have joined Pentecostal churches.