A Tragic Case of Mistaken Identity

J. Warren Smith

Some movies should not be seen alone. To experience the full pathos of the film requires the collective, emotional reaction of the whole audience. Hotel Rwanda is one such movie. It tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the Mille Collines Hotel, who turned this luxury hotel into a sanctuary for over 1,200 Tutsi refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide by the Hutu Interahamwe militia. In 2004, I saw it with a group of divinity students who then gathered to discuss the movie over pizza with Dr. Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan priest who has written on the genocide and reconciliation. Viewing and processing the film together allowed us to pool our collective memories and emotions to reflect more carefully about the lies and deceptions that led up to the genocide and the moral choices Paul made. Such collective reflection allowed us to confront together the question: How do we prevent this happening again? For us as Christians and leaders of the church, that vital question cannot be answered unless we confront an issue unaddressed in Hotel Rwanda, namely the church’s complicity in the genocide.

Chris McGreal’s short volume (88 pages) Chaplains of the Militia: The Tangled Story of the Catholic Church during Rwanda’s Genocide (Guardian Shorts, 2017) is a book not to be read alone. It should be read by the church catholic as a study in how the church, even in siding with a persecuted majority seeking justice, failed grievously to be the body of Christ. Unlike some conspiracy theories that pander to anti-Catholic or anti-clerical prejudices, Chaplains immediately strikes the reader as a highly professional piece of investigative journalism. McGreal is measured in his rhetoric and careful in conclusions. His subtitle, “the tangled story,” points to the complexities that accompany any narrative or conclusions about the diverse role of Catholics in this singularly violent slice of Rwanda’s history. Yet for all its complexities, the narrative’s conclusion is tragically clear.

McGreal begins with his interview of Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, who in 2005 was indicted by the UN International Tribunal for Rwanda for conspiring with the Hutu militia to kill Tutsis and moderate Hutu sympathizers. Interviews with survivors relate how Fr. Wenceslas, clothed in camouflage body armor with a cross around his neck and a pistol holstered on his hip, barred some Tutsis and Hutus from seeking shelter in his Kagali church, St. Famille. Others, including fellow Hutu priests, told how Fr. Wenceslas admitted many Tutsis, whom he denounced in sermons as inyenzi or “cockroaches.” However, he made lists of their names, which he handed over to the Interahamwe. Later he escorted the militia into St. Famille and allowed them to lead off those the asylum seekers to be slaughtered.

By contrast, Tutsi survivors have praise for Father Célestin Hakizimana, the Hutu priest in charge of the pastoral centre of St. Paul, which was adjacent to St. Famille. Father Célestin packed St. Paul’s with refugees. He too made lists he handed over the Interahamwe but these lists had false names or omitted the names of the Tutui leaders he knew the militia were seeking. When deception did not work, he bought off the militia to spare the lives of Tutsis who sought sanctuary at the St. Paul centre.

There are other such stories. Father Boniface Senyenzi, a Hutu, died with the Tutsis he sheltered in the rural church at Kibuye. Other stories we find nearly impossible to believe: among the genocidaire were two nuns, Julienne Maria Kizito and Gertrude Mukangango, who after turning Tutsis over to the militia gave them gasoline with which to burn Tutsis alive. The Catholic Church had no monopoly on such atrocities; Anglicans, Seventh Day Adventists, Presbyterians and others were equally guilty.

The stories of Father Célestin, Father Boniface, and Paul Rusesabagina are compelling. In their examples, as in the lives of the saints, we find the desperately needed hope that, if we were in their position, we too by God’s grace would have taken the road less traveled even to the point of death rather than following the wide path of larger society that leads to shame and perdition. The stories of Father Wenceslas and Sisters Julienne Maria and Gertrude cause us to grimace. We separate ourselves from them by reasoning that they are simply the most extreme cases. They are those nominal Christians who were never truly devoted to Christ and are not true representatives of the church. (The evidence McGreal presents about Father Wenceslas’s life before entering the priesthood easily supports such an interpretation.) Yet the larger history of the Rwandan Church that set the stage for the genocide does not let us dismiss the anecdotal extremes so easily.

After the transfer of Rwanda to Belgian control following the First World War, the Belgians governed Rwanda using members of the Tutsi minority (14%) who exercised power over the majority Hutu population (85%). Since the Catholic Church acted as an arm of the state, it naturally placed the Tutsis in positions of highest ecclesial authority as well. The vision of independence from Belgium in the early ‘60’s spurred Hutu hopes of overthrowing the Tutsis along with their Belgian masters who gave them authority. While the Hutus gained control of government in the early 70’s and drove many Tutsis into exile, some Tutsis sought to retain power in their ecclesial offices. In a letter to the archbishop of Kigali in April of 1972, a group of eleven Hutu priests protest that the church needs to be free of inyenzi Tutsi priests whom they viewed as “counter-revolutionaries who have not faced up to the fact that the Hutu majority [is] in charge of the country and should be in control of the church too.” The Hutu priests quote the Tutsi clerics: “Let the Hutu priests feel at home with their people and receive the favours of the government of their race. We Tutsis shall dominate in the church of Rwanda where we hold the reins of power and we shall not surrender those reins.” The seeds of the widespread clerical complicity or outright participation in genocide lie in these tribal divisions within the church. The Hutu clergy did not simply want to address the problem of disproportionate representation of Tutsi priests in positions of ecclesial authority – that was a reasonable goal that McGlear downplays – they wanted a revolution in the church that mirrored the political revolution that expelled the Tutsis from power in the government. Tribal identity trumped ecclesial identity.

The Rwandan Church failed to be an alternative politeia that found its identity in Christ who is firstborn of the new creation. He is the prototype of a new humanity in which all are united in him who has torn down the dividing walls erected by the arbitrary social conventions that reflect one groups rationalization of their will to power. A church, whose identity and way of life should have been guided by the narrative of the gospel, instead mirrored the narrative of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The church failed to be a countercultural voice to the racial divisions during the period of independence in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s or to the genocide in 1994. It failed then because in the colonial era it had sold its birthright as an autonomous communion independent from the Belgian colonial administration for the pottage of power and status from state patronage. In so doing, it sacrificed its authority to define relations between the people of Rwanda in theological terms. In place of biblical categories, it used European racial categories to establish the terms of social identity that would set Tutsi nationalism and Hutu Power at war. When the church allowed a secular, racial anthropology to replace a theological anthropology informed by a scriptural imagination, we should not be surprised that many in the Rwandan Church saw themselves as Hutu or Tutsi first and Christian second. When the papal envoy to Rwanda during the genocide in ‘94 heard priests and bishops justify the violence as moral cause, he asked, “Are you saying that the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?” I’m sure the envoy intended this to be a rhetorical question with an answer so obvious it need not be spoken. Instead, he received the surprising answer, “Yes.”

The history of the Rwandan genocide is a story not to be studied alone but in the community of the faithful. We need to hear in our ranks our collective “No” to the envoy’s question. While we may value our ethnic, cultural, national, regional, or political identities, their meaning and value must always be subordinated to that primary identity given us in the waters of baptism. The sacrament does not wash away those identities but pushes them from the essential center of our self-definition to the accidental margins so that they may never supersede our obligations to God and neighbor. May we be haunted by the image of camouflage-clad Father Wenceslas with the cross hanging from his neck and a pistol holstered at his side so that we may not forget the unimaginable consequences of ever subordinating our identity as Christians to any other allegiance or cause.

Posted Feb 20, 2017

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