CATHOLICS & COLONIALISM

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...

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About the Author

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