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Genocide And Religion In Rwanda


At the age of ten, Aloys Bigirumwami entered the Minor Seminary of Kabgayi. He didn’t return home for more than a decade. Reason: missionaries did not want their recruits – potential priests – to be confused or misled by local religious beliefs and practices.

He went on to become the first African Bishop to be appointed in the Belgian colonies. The extended stay away from the enculturation was to benefit the Church. The Church deployed all efforts to swallow African religions instead of finding common ground for working together for the benefit of society at large.

The Church branded African religions as pagan – full of black magic, sorcery, witchcraft and ancestral worship. This enculturation was part of the colonial design as converts were required to reject all their native religions and behaviors and practices. The plan was to have recruits break away from the old life and adjust to new moral and religious standards, adherence and allegiance.

King Musinga of Rwanda and King Mwanga of Buganda realized the danger of this new value system that diverted loyalty and allegiance of their subjects to some other authority which was the Church and colonialists. Both kings were removed from power for refusal to convert and to collaborate with the Church.

For many years in Rwanda, the mass was conducted only in Latin. Pastoral caregivers were (and still are) trained in Latin and French; language became an instrument of power because language is full of ideological connotation and value-laden. Those who learn the language absorb and internalize the ideology of the ruling class.

During the colonial era, Rwanda was one of the few African nations to have one language, one culture, and belief in only one God: Imana. Imana “God” was present in everyday life, language and culture. Sayings like “Imana yirirwa ahandi, ikarara i Rwanda” (God spends the day elsewhere, but sleeps in Rwanda) shows the relation between Rwandan culture, politics and religion.

Because of this uniqueness, the Catholic Church and colonial officials deployed extreme measures – on the culture, widespread knowledge and understanding to convert people. For colonialists and the Catholic Church to convert many people, they had to reinterpret Rwandan mythology using a Christian framework. In Rwandan mythology, the power of the Nyiginya dynasty originated from Imana. The everyday language and values had to change too: Imana “God” became “Mungu”. “Imiziro n’imiziririzo “the dos and don’ts” that characterized Rwandan values were banned.

There is a saying; “Kiliziya yaciye kirazira” (The Catholic churches removed/ banned the dos and donts). This transformed the understanding and relation with God to the vertical (the person and God) from the horizontal (the person responsible and answerable to a collective guided by shared values). The reframing of Rwandan mythology also transformed Rwandans into distinct political identities. Some members of the political class embraced and used the Catholic Church material interpretation of history to amplify the new “ethnic identities.”

Catholic Church role in Genocide

Nothing shows it better than the Ten Commandments of Hutu that were formulated and written in the sixties by Joseph Gitera Habyarimana and republished in the nineties in the lead up to genocide. The commandments use similar language and form as God’s Ten Commandments that were given to Moses.

The killings and violence of 1973 that foreshadowed the 1994 Genocide happened in Catholic establishments such as Byimana, Save and Nyamasheke high schools. Throughout the years that followed, the abuse continued with the application of apartheid policies of exclusion and discrimination of Tutsi in schools, seminaries and even businesses owned by the Catholic Church.

 A Hutu nationalist Vincent Nsengiyumva replaced Aloys Bigirumwami as bishop of Nyundo in 1974. By this time, the Catholic Church was thoroughly intertwined with the state. It conceived itself as intervening on behalf of the Hutu majority.

Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan scholar, writes: “The Church was the original ethnographer of Rwanda. It was the original author of the Hamitic hypothesis. The Church provided the lay personnel that permeated every local community and helped distinguish Hutu from Tutsi in every neighbourhood: without the Church, there would have been no ‘racial’ census in Rwanda.”

At the same time, the Church was the womb that nurtured the leadership of the insurgent Hutu movement. It provided the intellectual and organizational backup for this movement, from talent as ghostwriters to funding for the cooperative movement which oiled the tentacles that ran through Rwandan society like so many arteries through a body politic.

It is therefore unfortunate that the Catholic Church has never shown political and moral leadership before, during, and immediately after the genocide. It is an indictment against the Church that nearly 70% of the victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi died in churches and it other subsidiary establishments. As if that was not morally reprehensible, the Church continued supporting and protecting genocide perpetrators, including some of its own priests and nuns.

The Catholic Church and Rwanda’s colonial power violently attacked Rwanda’s belief systems in order to not only replace it; but also to establish a system of values that would any consequences for this violence.

For an entity that demands repentance, it’s surprising that the Catholic Church continues to deny its role in the Genocide, let alone acts of sabotage that were aimed at denying legitimacy to Rwanda’s post genocide government.

Enter “Abarokore”

Lack of moral and spiritual leadership in the Catholic Church before and during the Genocide led to a spiritual and faith crisis in post-genocide Rwanda. New Pentecostal churches commonly known as “Abarokore” mushroomed around the country led by returnees from Uganda, DR Congo and Burundi. By 1996, Kigali had 45 new denominations that offered spiritual revival focused on personal conversion, repentance, and the righting of earthly wrongs.

They targeted survivors who considered the Catholic Church a dead end for spiritual life – the Abarokore churches offered a spiritual renewal, material support and trauma healing.

In so many ways, these churches employed the very same technique that the Catholic Church used to destroy Rwandan beliefs. They called the Catholic Church pagan and promised “deliverance” to born agains.

God-driven leadership?

There is a rumor that President Kagame was given a copy of “The Purpose Driven Life” by Pastor Rick Warren and, after reading it he invited Rick Warren saying “I’m a purpose-driven man, let’s make Rwanda a purpose-driven nation.”

It appears that the relationship between President Kagame and American evangelicals have helped him to influence the views of US administrations on Rwanda. This affirmation of President Kagame’s leadership also manifested itself during the 2010 presidential inauguration, where Warren aligned and affirmed Rwanda’s vision of self-rule and dignity as work and will of God.

In the full stadium, Warren said, “Ndi mu rugo” (I’m home). Then he prayed: “You have said in your word, ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord’.  Help all Rwandans to remember that only God is God. And when critics seek to discourage, si bo Imana [they are not God]. And when other nations pressure Rwanda to give up its values, si bo Imana [they are not God]. And when outsiders assume that they know what Rwandans should do, si bo Imana [they are not God]. Only you are God. These people know where they came from, they know what they want, and they know you are God.”

What can be gleaned from this is that protestants no longer want to be the spiritual “alternative” in Rwanda. They are getting adherents, especially among the young people mainly because of their charismatic leaders, worship style, proclamations prophecy and the well-known prosperity gospel. This is true almost everywhere in Sub Saharan Africa. However, for Rwanda these churches – unlike the Catholic Church – have been successful because they were unequivocal in denouncing the genocide against the Tutsi and rejected any notion that there were grey areas as deniers purposefully; and – most importantly – that the Catholic Church was a central actor in the genocide against the Tutsi.


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