Religion & Genocide

Last month two Benedictine nuns were convicted in a Belgian court of collaborating in the murder of thousands during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Sister Gertrude Mukangango and Sister Maria Kisito were sentenced to fifteen and twelve years’ imprisonment, respectively, for their roles in turning over to their Hutu killers seven thousand Tutsi who had sought asylum in the nuns’ monastery. In addition to betraying those who had found refuge at the monastery, the sisters willingly provided the gasoline used by Hutu militiamen to burn down a garage in which five hundred Tutsi men, women, and children were hiding. The two women subsequently fled to Belgium, Rwanda’s former colonial ruler, in the hope of escaping prosecution by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi-led government now in control of the traumatized Central African country. More than eight hundred thousand Tutsi were killed in less than three months at the hands of the Hutu majority in what is considered one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century.

There appears to be little doubt about the women’s guilt. Crucial to the prosecution was the willingness of other Benedictine sisters to testify against them. Sister Gertrude and Sister Maria were tried under a Belgian law that allows the state to prosecute crimes committed in another country. The convictions are unprecedented because this is the first time that a jury in one country has convicted anyone of genocidal acts that occurred in another country. Human-rights activists are hopeful that the Belgian verdicts will give new impetus to the prosecution of war crimes.

Of course, bringing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice is notoriously difficult, especially when the killers comprise a large portion of the population of an entire society, as was the case among the Hutu of Rwanda. There are still one hundred thirty thousand people suspected of genocidal acts in jails in Rwanda. Currently, the UN is conducting trials in Tanzania of a few of the accused, but the process has been fitful, and only eight convictions have been secured in seven years. With few surviving witnesses, evidence hard to come by, and severe logistical and financial constraints, justice can seem all but unattainable. Added to these obstacles and complications is the poor internal human-rights record of the current government, which has also played a large role in the civil war and widespread massacres now convulsing the Congo.

In this context, the Belgian verdict appears remarkably fair and a welcome instance of measured justice. And that makes the Vatican’s response to the convictions doubly disappointing. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Vatican spokesman, went out of his way to cast doubt on the motives of the prosecutors. "The Holy See cannot but express a certain surprise at seeing the grave responsibility of so many people and groups involved in this tremendous genocide in the heart of Africa heaped on so few people," he said. While acknowledging that those Catholics guilty of murder must accept full responsibility for their acts, Navarro-Valls insisted that the church "cannot be held responsible for the sins of its members."

This sort of language is, of course, familiar from "We Remember," the Vatican’s parsimonious 1998 statement on the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the institutional and theological defensiveness that colors such Vatican reactions cast more doubt than light on the church’s claims. To be fair, Navarro-Valls’s statement can be understood as a response to the way the RPF has used the Catholic church as a scapegoat in an effort to deflect attention from its own crimes and abuses of power. But the Vatican is wrong to raise such suspicions in the context of the Belgian trial, which was not under RPF influence, and which represents a significant step toward the successful prosecution of human-rights crimes. It is equally dispiriting to learn that prominent Belgian lay Catholics and church officials attempted to block the trial altogether, and, when that failed, tried to discourage the other Benedictine nuns from testifying against the indicted sisters.

Rwanda is a predominantly Catholic country, and the church’s missionary work early in the last century often did exacerbate ethnic antagonism between Tutsi and Hutu. That said, the church cannot be held responsible for the genocide, which was planned and carried out by Hutu leaders motivated by political grievances and ethnic hatred. Catholic bishops, priests, and sisters suffered martyrdom at the hands of the militias, and ordinary Hutu Catholics were killed trying to protect Tutsi neighbors. It is equally true, however, that other clerics and nuns supported the Hutu genocide or stood by silently as it unfolded. Catholics were found on both sides of this enormous crime, and it is sobering that the pervasive Catholic institutional and cultural presence in Rwanda proved little impediment to such mind-numbing savagery.

Faced with these facts, the church’s response to the lawful prosecution of Catholics involved in mass killings should never hint at grudging acceptance or parochial interests. That those schooled and trained for visible leadership in the church succumbed to hateful violence is an occasion for self-examination and humility, not self-serving lectures about the distinction between the church "as such" and her fallible sons and daughters. Some Catholics never tire of warning that the tolerance and pluralism of Western democracy has resulted in our losing sight of the existence of moral truth. Democracy is doomed, they say, if it does not recognize the relationship between God and humankind as well as the relationship between morality and politics. There is something to this critique. But the genocide in Rwanda once again reminds us that even when the church enjoys a place of preeminence in a culture, there is no guarantee that the truth about the relationship between God and humankind will be a living reality in people’s hearts, even among those who represent the official church.

Published in the 2001-07-13 issue: 

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