Bless us, Father, but you have sinned: The Vatican was involved in one of the great crimes of the 20th century

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By GERALD CAPLAN

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was one of the great crimes of the 20th century. In a mere 100 days, a small clique of Hutu extremists orchestrated the slaughter of some 800,000 Tutsi and thousands of moderate Hutu. What made the genocide even more scandalous was how easily it could have been prevented.

But the world failed Rwanda. The central actors who abandoned Rwanda are well known: the United Nations Security Council (led by the United States with British backing); the UN Secretariat; the governments of France and Belgium, and the Organization of African Unity.

Rwandans were also betrayed by the Roman Catholic Church.

The church had been an active partner with Germany and then Belgium in colonizing the country more than a century ago. As many as two-thirds of Rwandans became Roman Catholics, the highest percentage in Africa.

And Catholic missionaries were primarily responsible for concocting the bizarre and divisive racist ideology that eventually ended in genocide. Initially, church leaders (many of them White Father missionaries from Quebec) championed the country’s Tutsi minority. Once independence brought governments controlled by Hutu, the Tutsi were abruptly abandoned.

For more than three decades, ethnic apartheid favouring the Hutu was institutionalized in all aspects of Rwandan life. Yet the church remained a trusted ally and reliable bulwark of the regime, giving it both legitimacy and comfort.

Church leaders rarely challenged the ethnic basis of public life; many actively embraced the one-party military dictatorship that ruled the country. Nor did they use their unique moral position among the faithful — a majority of the population, we should recall — to denounce the palpable increase in human-rights abuses and anti-Tutsi persecution.

By 1994, most white missionaries had been replaced by Rwandan, largely Hutu, clergy. Once the genocide began, these church leaders (the less numerous Anglicans were similarly culpable) played a conspicuously scandalous role, at best remaining silent or explicitly neutral. Church leaders did not abandon their traditional close relationship with the country’s Hutu establishment even at the bloodiest peak of the genocide. Although there were heroic exceptions, most were anything but neutral in their sympathies. Some are known to have co-operated with and facilitated the work of the genocidal killers.

It is not too much to assert, as some have, that these priests and nuns were at the very least indirectly complicit in the genocide for failing over the years, and especially during the worst 100 days, to dissociate themselves categorically from race hatred, to condemn ethnic manipulation, and to denounce human-rights violations. Church pulpits, after all, provided the
opportunity for almost the entire population to hear a strong message that might well have prevented the genocide. Instead, the leaders remained silent.

Because the clergy were the clearest embodiment of moral authority at the local level, this silence was easily interpreted by ordinary Christians as an implicit endorsement of the killings. Perhaps this helps explain the greatest mystery about the genocide: the terrible success of Hutu extremists in turning so many ordinary people into accomplices.

It is surely remarkable, given their experiences, that almost two-thirds of the Rwandan people, both Hutu and Tutsi, still retain their allegiance to the church. Yet many of these same people are also profoundly bitter that the church, to this moment, has utterly failed to acknowledge any responsibility whatever for the genocide. In contrast, the new Anglican archbishop has publicly apologized on behalf of his church for its comparable role. Nothing similar has emanated from the Catholic hierarchy in Rwanda.

Or from the Pope. The Rwandan government has repeatedly demanded a formal apology from the Vatican, as have people around the world, many of them Catholics. They have been ignored. To the dismay of many, in his February, 2000, apology for the past mistakes of the church, the Pope chose not to include Rwanda.

No one can fathom the Vatican’s refusal to address this shameful moment in the church’s history. Yet Rwanda needs the Pope to do so. The country remains deeply troubled and divided. Reconciliation comes at an agonizingly slow pace. There is a singular role for the Pope here. It is not too late for him to apologize for the church’s moral abdication, to urge his Rwandan
flock to confess to whatever guilt they carry, and to join with him in seeking forgiveness from all those Rwandans whose faith was betrayed.

This would constitute a major contribution to healing in the country. It would, of course, be best if it happened in Rwanda, but that now seems unrealistic. Next week, the Pope is in Toronto for World Youth Day. Would not an address to young Catholics from around the world be the symbolically perfect time to confess the truth at last?

Gerald Caplan is the author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, the report of the International Panel of Eminent Personalities appointed by the Organization of African Unity to investigate the Rwandan genocide, and a co-ordinator of Remembering Rwanda: The Rwanda Genocide 10th Anniversary Memorial Project.

Source: THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Thursday, July 18, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A15

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