The church's failure in Rwanda

On April 6, 1994, two ground-to-air missiles struck the jet carrying Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi. All on board were killed. Within hours, a killing rampage erupted in Rwanda that, over the next three months, would leave between half a million and a million dead. It is by no means insignificant that some of the first victims were Catholic priests, lay workers, and young retreatants at the Centre Christus in Kigali, Rwanda, and that attacks on the church continued throughout the massacres. Startingly, a majority of the killings in the genocide even took place within church buildings: Hutu militia turned these traditional places of refuge into mass Tutsi graves; the buildings were also frequently desecrated. As a result, analyses initially focused on a persecuted church. But since approximately 90 percent of the Rwandan population is Christian-Tutsi and Hutu alike-the focus has turned to the question of a church of persecutors.

Clearly, many Christians participated in the massacres. There were also, however, many priests, nuns, and lay people who risked their lives or died protecting those in danger. The church, therefore, was one of both saints and sinners. But did it sin more than it was sinned against? It is my contention that, in Rwanda, ethnicity-and not Christianity-was the principal factor driving the killings. But the church was guilty of complicity whenever it sharpened ethnic division through educational bias or political preference for a clearly racist regime, or remained silent before clear discrimination and violations of social justice. Perhaps what the Rwandan genocide calls most into question concerning the role of the church is its method of evangelization and the ethnic divisions it hardened and perpetuated. This complicity made it a target for disdain and retribution.

The evolution of ethnicity and the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi is a central factor of Rwandan history and was the predominant impetus for the genocide. These divisions, however, were not entrenched in precolonial Rwandan society. The earliest observers recognized two predominant groups, the cattle-owning Tutsi and the farming Hutu. Although these two groups shared the same language and culture, the Tutsi were considered the elite in Rwandan society, as cattle were a sign of wealth. The minority Tutsi, who arrived in present-day Rwanda around the thirteenth century, gradually established monarchical control over the majority Hutu. But to preserve the peace, certain Hutu were allowed to function within the monarchy. Strict differentiation along ethnic lines developed only after the arrival of German and Belgian colonialists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The colonialists justified and consolidated the rule of the Tutsi elite; they did not create the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, but aggravated it. Following the defeat of Germany in World War I, the League of Nations gave Rwanda to Belgium as a "gift" to administer. Belgium decided upon a policy of indirect rule and favored the Tutsi-taller, thinner, and lighter in color-over the Hutu. The Belgians centralized power in a single chief and gave the Tutsi control of the judicial system. As a result, the majority Hutu were excluded from participation in Rwandan politics. The ideology supporting this ethnic differentiation was that certain races were born to rule whereas others were born to be ruled. Known as the "Hamitic theory," it was based on a tradition of Old Testament exegesis identifying the descendants of Ham-Noah’s son cursed for his sinfulness-as dark-skinned Africans. The "Hamitic theory" was originally used to justify slavery and racism against all blacks, but revised to justify favoritism by the colonial powers-and the church-of the lighter-skinned Tutsi. They were cast as divinely instituted rulers.

The first missionaries of Africa, the White Fathers, had arrived to a lukewarm welcome in Nyanza, Rwanda, in 1900. The Tutsi chiefs and policy makers were agreed that the missionaries should be limited to interaction with the Hutu; in fact, not until the mid-1920s did a single member of the ruling Tutsi class convert, and the early converts to Christianity were predominantly Hutu peasants. But this process of evangelization went against the White Fathers’ mandate to evangelize from the top down-to convert the purportedly superior Tutsi first. For the Catholic missionaries, this top-down approach was the typical method of evangelization; that it did not work in Rwanda was a frustration and a challenge.

Initially, the Tutsi perceived the missionaries as a threat to their established power. In 1907, however, this perception began to shift with the arrival in Rwanda of White Father Leon Classe, a staunch advocate of the hierarchical method of evangelization. Classe believed that the success of the Rwandan mission depended upon the conversion of the Tutsi; though he did not oppose Hutu advancement per se, in his stance for a Tutsi-led church he applied the "Hamitic theory" to theology. When tensions arose within the mission itself over its responsibilities, Classe’s argument was decisive: "You must choose the [Tutsi]...because the government will probably refuse [Hutu] teachers...In the government the positions in every branch of the administration, even the unimportant ones, will be reserved henceforth for young [Tutsi]." Classe’s statement foreshadows the marriage between church and state that was destined to aggravate growing ethnic divisions in Rwanda. The means of bringing about this marriage was, principally, education.

Prior to Classe’s arrival, the White Fathers had resigned themselves to establishing an indigenous Hutu church-a goal which required educated clergy. But though there were Hutu ordinations, the vast majority of candidates abandoned the seminaries. With their education, however, many Hutu were able to attain positions as teachers and administrators within the colonial system, thus upsetting the social hierarchy and legitimating Tutsi suspicion of the missions. This might have been the legacy-or the end-of Christianity in Rwanda; but the conversion and enthronement of Tutsi King Mutara Rudahigwa as Mutara III in 1931 quelled social instability and set church and state on another course.

Rudahigwa’s conversion sparked la tornade, the rush of Tutsi converts to Christianity. With his conversion, conditions turned favorable for evangelization through the chiefs to the masses. Rwanda’s social structure was conducive to this method: Once the leaders converted, there was social pressure for the masses to convert as well. As the sociologist Ian Linden has noted, "[I]n a remarkable way, Catholicism became ’traditional’ the moment the Tutsi were baptized in large numbers." And not only did it become traditional, but it also became the state religion. In a short period of time the Hutu-Catholic church of the poor became the Tutsi-Catholic church of the ruling elite.

As a consequence of this state of affairs, many of the converts were ill-prepared and drawn into the church for questionable motives such as social and economic benefits. The Catholic church took control of education in the 1930s and exercised a clear bias for the Tutsi, who thereby acquired a monopoly on positions of authority and control, not only in industry but in the political bureaucracy as well. The sociologist Catherine Newbury has affirmed that this educational policy resulted in "clear discrimination against Hutu in most of Rwanda’s Catholic mission schools." The alliance between church and state "introduced a more marked stratification between ethnic groups than had existed in the past. And as stratification was intensified, ethnic distinctions were sharpened." The mission schools’ bias in favor of the Tutsi against the Hutu-sometimes even minimal height levels were enforced-was a major factor in hardening ethnic divisions and spurring resentment.

The Tutsi church-state alliance started to come apart after World War II, when colonial political and religious support for the Tutsi was gradually transferred to the Hutu. Several factors account for this shift. First, Belgium’s exploitation of Rwanda during the war generated anticolonialist sentiment, and the empowered Tutsi began to rail at their colonial yoke. Because of the alliance between church and state, the church was also implicated in this discontent. Second, the champion of a Tutsi-dominated church, Father Classe, died in 1945. (According to the historian Gérard Prunier, Classe was "almost a national monument" for his influence on Rwandan politics.) He was replaced by the White Father Laurent Deprimoz, who began to address the divisive nature of ethnicity within the Rwandan church. Perhaps inevitably, however, Deprimoz’s efforts backfired and only made these divisions more strident. Third, the number of indigenous clergy, the majority of whom were Tutsi, came to equal the number of European clergy, and a struggle broke out for control of the church. The imbalance of power between the White Fathers and indigenous clergy caused no little resentment among the latter. This struggle was intensified by new Belgian missionaries who, Flemish rather than Walloon and from humbler social classes, did not sympathize with the aristocratic Tutsi but encouraged the downtrodden Hutu.

The final vestiges of colonial control over Rwanda were shattered with the death of King Rudahigwa in 1959 and the investiture of his successor, Jean-Baptiste Ndahindurwa, who took the name Kigeri V. This transition of power precipitated a civil war; Tutsi and Hutu formed factions poised against one another. Pushed by Tutsi clergy, Bishop Aloys Bigirumwami of the Nyundo vicarate became the symbolic figurehead of the Tutsi faction, the Union Nationale Rwandaise, and Bishop André Perraudin of Kabgayi was perceived as the champion of the oppressed Hutu for his insistence on the church’s social teaching. Though they had issued a joint letter calling for peace, the bishops-and church-were swept into the emerging violence.

This powder keg exploded in November 1959, after the brutal attack of a Hutu activist. A peasant revolt (Jacquerie) broke out leaving hundreds dead and thousands displaced. Thereafter, through political guile and propaganda, the Hutu nationalist movement gained support and momentum, culminating in a call for independence and the popular election of Grégoire Kayibanda as de facto president of a new republic on January 28, 1961. Belgium formally recognized Rwanda’s independence on July 1, 1962, but independence brought only deeper wounds. Following it, the Hutu took over governmental positions from the Tutsi, and the oppressed rapidly became oppressors. The Hutu turned the "Hamitic theory" against the Tutsi, who were recast as "Hamitic invaders" and colonialists. Many Tutsi fled north into Uganda from where they staged raids on the Hutu, who retaliated in turn. From December 1963 to January 1964, the new Hutu government killed between 10,000 and 12,000 Tutsi. Extended over thirty years, this fighting and repression constituted a long fuse to the 1994 explosion.

On November 21, 1991, the Catholic bishops of Rwanda issued a letter to priests and religious on the "Pastoral Role in Rebuilding Rwanda." A central theme of this letter was the need to overcome ethnic divisions. Thaddée Nsengiyumva, bishop of Kabgayi and president of the Rwandan Episcopal Conference, acknowledged the church’s complicity in perpetuating these divisions by declaring, in a public letter dated December 1, 1991, that "the church is sick." Too little, too late? Certainly too little to prevent the genocide of 1994, when President Habyarimana’s murder gave Hutu extremists within his regime free reign to execute their "final solution."

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: 

Todd Salzman is visiting assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego.

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