Better Late Than Never: Pope Francis Apologises for Church's Role in Rwandan Genocide

The apology promises to open a significant chapter for rapprochement and accountability in a country that hasn't yet recovered from the tragedy.

Pope Francis poses with Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and his wife Jeannette during a private meeting at the Vatican March 20, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Tony Gentile

Pope Francis poses with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and his wife Jeannette during a private meeting at the Vatican March 20, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Tony Gentile

Four months after the Rwandan Catholic church apologised for the wrongs committed by the church in the 1994 Rwandan genocide; Pope Francis on March 20, 2017 did the same from the Vatican. The 1994 genocide, which took the lives of eight lakh Rwandans – mostly ethnic Tutsis – in a span of three months after the mysterious killing of President Juvenal Habyarimana, was amongst the worst humanitarian conflicts to occur post the extermination of Jews during the Second World War. While it took more than two decades for the Catholic church to acknowledge the complicity of priests, nuns and others associated with it, and comes in the wake of requests made by Rwanda in this regard, the apology promises to open a significant chapter in building the bridges of rapprochement and answering questions of accountability in a country that is yet to fully recover from the scale of the tragedy.

Rwandan genocide: A background

Ever since Rwanda had won independence in 1962, the country had been a hotbed of ethnic conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis. The rampant fighting between the two ethnic groups lead to the mediation of the Arusha Accords by the US, France and the Organization of African Unity in 1993. The arrangement brokered a peace deal factoring in humanitarian concerns between the Hutu-dominated Kigali government and the Tutsi-lead Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The agreement was short-lived and ended on April 6, 1994 when President Habyarimana’s airplane was shot down in Kigali, leading to widespread attacks against Tutsis who were suspected of orchestrating the attack on the place. The attacks – lead by a group known as the interahamwe – that followed the assassination took the form of a genocide with the widespread and systematic targeting of a specific ethnic group in addition to moderate sections of the Hutu community as well. The cumulative death toll was believed to be around eight lakh, with a disproportionate number of Tutsis being the victims.

Role of the Catholic church

Given the church’s strong presence and its close fraternal links with the Hutu elites in the country, it was naturally drawn into the ethnic conflict. The closeness of the link is evident from the fact that the erstwhile archbishop of Rwanda, Vincent Nsengiyumva, was a cabinet member and a vociferous supporter of the Hutu establishment. While a large number of priests and nuns were killed in the conflict, many clergymen of the church were believed to have been actively involved in the killings. Chief amongst such suspects was Reverend Athanase Serombo, the first catholic priest to be tried for genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). The priest was found guilty of ordering the demolition of church in Western Rwanda – where 2000 ethnic Tutsis had taken shelter with the belief that the church would be a place of sanctuary. Far from living up to the expectation of being a protector, Serombo, according to witnesses testimonies, helped the perpetrators by identifying the weakest parts of the church buildings which would be best to hit for a quick demolition and motivated the criminal gangs to identify the victims after derisively referring to them as “cockroaches”. The priest was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Arusha-based tribunal on December 13, 2006. Shockingly, he was permitted to leave Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide and serve in church positions in Florence, Italy despite the genocidal stains on him.

Yet another controversial character was Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, who served as a priest in Gisors, northern France after his Rwandan misadventures. Convicted for genocide by a Rwandan court and sentenced to life in prison in absentia for his role in the conflict – which included close collaboration with the interahamwe – the clergyman gained notoriety for carrying a gun beneath this jacket at the height of the ethnic conflict and peddling hate against the Tutsis. The damaging proximity of these figures with the ruling political and military establishment was in many ways a strong contributory factor in the actual genocide as well as its nightmarish aftereffects. The role of the Catholic establishment in giving an image makeover to Munyeshyaka and Serombo is an integral part of the unfortunate legacy of the genocide.

While there is no doubt that numerous Catholic priests and nuns were killed during the conflict and many did play a positive role in mitigating the humanitarian crisis, the church’s role in fomenting racial and ethnic divisions in the country with the intent to strengthen its power equations with the ruling Hutu elite has been a black mark on the institution’s record.

Addition, pinning the blame on local clergymen by saying they acted individually without either the consent or backing of the Vatican did no good since the church went on to whitewash the role its holy men and women played in the genocide. And its refusal to undertake a deeper introspection of the issue did no favours to the church either.

Significantly enough though, the apology follows a long line of apologies from the Vatican for numerous transgressions, including but not limited to sexual crimes committed by priests in Ireland, North America and Australia. The delayed apology has brought up the idea that the church’s reluctance to express regret was due to a belief that the conflict was more a result of inherent ethnic tensions peculiar to Africa, rather than the institutional culpability of Rome. While it’s easy to propose such notions, it comes with the danger of stereotyping the African continent by relying on Western prejudice. It remains to be seen if the apology will be followed by strict action against suspect clergymen and other wrongdoers. Pope Francis’s apology, despite being belated, is arguably the most significant transitional justice initiative in Rwanda post the establishment of the ICTR in 1994. It promises to be no less significant than the ICTR in its impact on transitional justice and conciliation measures in the country.

Abraham Joseph is a Ph.D candidate in international criminal law from NLSIU, Bangalore and an assistant professor at Ansal School of Law, Ansal University, Gurgaon.