KIGALI, Rwanda — Gloriosa Uwimpuhwe stopped going to church years ago. Burdened by the memory of the 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide, she hesitates to step foot in the sacred places where women were raped in pews, where children were slaughtered against brick walls.
They are events too hard to forget, she says, and apparently, too ghastly for her priest to address. Often when she attended Mass, she would notice his gaze wander almost to the genocide memorial just beyond the church door.
“He’s almost looking there when he speaks, but his eyes don’t go all the way. His eyes just stop, and he reads us what’s in the Bible without establishing any connections to the reality we have lived and to the reality we are living.”
He talks, she says, “like nothing happened.”
It’s a problem that many here say plagues Rwanda’s Catholic Church, which once laid claim to six in 10 Rwandans. Thirteen years after this tiny nation collapsed into mass murder, the church still struggles to reclaim its moral authority. Many like Uwimpuhwe say reconciliation efforts are undermined as some try to whitewash the church’s role in the bloodshed.
So some Sundays, Uwimpuhwe prays alone near the mass grave of local genocide victims. She considers herself Catholic, but still cannot trust a church that she says condoned — or turned a blind eye toward — mass murder.
“I live,” she said, “in disappointments with the church people.”
The snapshots of the horror conducted by men of God hover like mist over Rwanda, and the church. The stories, by now, are well known: nuns helping Hutu death squads murder thousands of minority Tutsis inside a convent; priests manning roadblocks to identify people for slaughter; a priest who ordered his church bulldozed while it swelled with 2,000 Tutsis seeking sanctuary.
Other stories circulated about the church itself — of a hierarchy that condoned ethnic hatred
from the pulpit, and of top church leaders who held positions of prominence in the Hutu government that orchestrated the genocide.
“Still now, there are many issues which are not cleared,” said Paul Rutayisire, a history professor at the National University of Rwanda. “The Church has not completely regained its legitimacy.”
The night the majority Hutu population launched their coordinated attacks, Uwimpuhwe begged her mother to avoid churches. “I said, ‘I am not letting you go there. Because I do not want you to die in a church, by a priest or a nun. Please do not be a temptation to these people — they will kill.”’
And some did kill. Countless Catholics also resisted the calls to hatred, often becoming victims themselves. Three bishops, 169 priests and more than 50 nuns died, along with thousands of faithful.
“Of course, Catholics being the majority, you see that most of those committing the genocide have been Catholics,” said Jean Claude Ngendandumwe, who manages the church’s Peace and Reconciliation program in Rwanda. “But also most of those being killed were also Catholics.”
Early on, Pope John Paul II was among the first to use the word “genocide” for what was unfolding in Rwanda, and within a month, he admitted the participation of some church leaders. Then came silence. Hutu priests charged with involvement either fled or washed the blood from their hands and continued preaching.
Tom Ndahiro, a former member of Rwanda’s Human Rights Commission, visited churches in the aftermath and saw Catholics conducting services next to decomposing corpses. “They would push the bodies away and pray,” he said.
“And all the while, they kept preaching forgiveness — blind forgiveness — to the survivors, because so many of their priests and bishops were implicated.”
As years passed, critics say the church closed itself off, refusing to cooperate with the new Tutsi-led government. It declined a top-to-bottom internal investigation, and many took that silence as a de facto confession.
Slowly, near the Jubilee Year of 2000, Rwandan church leaders declared the need for a new evangelism that taught true faith over “knowledge of faith learned by heart.” Church agencies were restructured to assist in reconciliation. Killers were encouraged to confess and victims were asked to forgive.
But Rutayisire, the history professor, said he saw little change in his classes at one of Rwanda’s largest seminaries. New priests, he said, were “silent” about the genocide.
“It is not their preoccupation,” he said. “They are more concerned by the organizational things going on with the parishes, with the Christian communities, with the sacraments.”
Victims’ advocates are particularly angry that most churches have yet to erect memorials to the slaughter. Rome eventually agreed for two churches to be preserved in the state they were found after the genocide. In Nyamata, the stained-glass windows are still shattered. The alter cloth is still soaked red with blood, the rosaries of the dead lie gathered in a bowl.
Church officials say it would be inappropriate — and impractical — to shut down every house of worship that saw bloodshed. Memorial plaques in every sanctuary would also detract from national reconciliation. It’s a position that Ndahiro, the former human rights commissioner, rejects out of hand.
“In my view, accepting to make them memorials would stick into the books of history that the church failed,” he said. “Much as they failed to act during the genocide, silence is still there today.”
Perched aside one of Kigali’s highest hills, the parish of Sainte Famille is trying to look ahead, not back. It was here where hundreds of Tutsis sought safety in the spring of 1994, and also here that hundreds were systematically separated from their families and massacred. After the genocide, the walls were scrubbed down, the bodies cleared and the bullet holes patched.
The Rev. Mwumvaneza Anaclet directs the Justice and Peace Commission for the Kigali Archdiocese. He highlights past efforts to assist survivors with material needs immediately after the genocide and current efforts to staff community-based genocide trials.
“The church has not lost the moral authority,” he said. “It was during the genocide that the evil forces were weighing over the strength of the church. But after the genocide the church still had the moral authority.”
On a typical Sunday morning, every pew at Sainte Famille is filled and dozens who can’t fit inside crowd around the back door.
“Our efforts have helped to show people the way Christians should behave,” Anaclet said. “And God forbid, but if it happened again, I’m sure the Christians and the priests and the other religious people would know how to behave now, thanks to these messages.”
Uwimpuhwe has her doubts. She remembers a priest once saying the genocide was like a giant smelting machine, melting metal to make it clean again.
“And he said that we, the Christians after the genocide, are the brand-new metal. And I said, ‘What does it mean for the church to say things like that? Did really the genocide wash us? Did it get us older or newer, cleaner or dirtier? No Christian has gone through the machine that has made him better. I think we are all dirty.”’
By JASON KANE
Religion News Service—November 2007