Rwanda’s genocide was in part a failure of the Christian church, a former hotel manager whose efforts to save the lives of more than 1,200 of his countrymen inspired the Academy Award-nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda,” said in a Sunday interview.
Prior to 1994, Rwanda was described as the most Christianized country in Africa. Ninety percent of its citizens professed to be Christians. But that didn’t stop tribal violence from breaking out that resulted in the wanton murder of 800,000 people in 100 days.
Like other foreigners, American missionaries were evacuated when the killing started, Paul Rusesabagina told EthicsDaily.com.
“The Rwandan genocide took place in a hidden way, without any eyewitnesses from the international community,” Rusesabagina said. “When it comes to churches, all the churches kept quiet.”
“Silence, as we all know, is complicity,” he said.
Dwight Jackson, a former Southern Baptist missionary to Burundi before the same strife between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups that plagued neighboring Rwanda forced him to leave in the mid-1980s, said all missionaries knew of individuals who were put out of the country for writing less-than-complimentary items on ethnic or political issues.
“That speaks to the issue of how all of us, Baptists included, assisted in the situation by our silence,” Jackson said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com.
Rusesabagina, who titled his 2006 autobiography An Ordinary Man, said at Sunday’s convocation at MiddleTennesseeStateUniversity that his small East African country was already divided when Europeans arrived, but colonists used those divisions to gain power by elevating the Tutsis–viewed as taller and with more European-looking angular noses–to favored status over Hutus, the majority group. Waves of violence between the two groups went back and forth over the years.
Rusesabagina argues that because of intermarriage and common language the distinction today is largely artificial. But that didn’t stop hate radio, following the April 6, 1994, assassination of Rwanda’s president Juvenal Habyarimana, from inciting Rwandan citizens to perform their “duty” of rooting out Tutsi “cockroaches” and moderate Hutus in opposition parties and hacking them to death with machetes.
Instead of opposing the violence, Rusesabagina said, churches were often complicit. People fled to churches for sanctuary, as they had in earlier conflicts. This time those same churches turned into death traps, as ministers either stood by or assisted in ethnic cleansing.
A Belgian court convicted two Benedictine nuns in 2001 of participating in the massacre of more than 7,600 people at the Sovu convent in Butare.
An Anglican bishop was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for the crime of genocide, specifically “for killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the Tutsi population with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a racial or ethnic group.”
Accusations were also documented against clergy of the Free Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist churches.
Finnish police recently took into protective custody Francois Bazaramba, a Baptist pastor suspected of having led the massacre of nearly 5,000 Tutsis. The head of a Baptist youth training camp in Nyakizu, Butare, Bazaramba is accused of helping to organize one genocide and participating in a large massacre. He has lived in Finland since 2003.
Other church leaders, after years of accepting favors and overlooking injustice of the Habyarimana regime, allegedly maintained silence and did nothing.
Jackson, who now works as Rwanda and Burundi director for Food for the Hungry, a Christian relief-and-development organization dedicated to meeting physical and spiritual needs around the world, said he knew of no missionaries or teachers in Burundi Baptist circles who tried to exploit or offer theological support for the superiority of one tribal group over the other.
“It was more a part of the cultural fabric that we were unable to address,” he said. “So we did nothing.”
Rusesabagina studied to be a pastor before switching to hotel management, but today describes himself as a “lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist.” He said he, like other formerly devout Rwandans, felt abandoned by God in 1994.
“Whenever we were praying, kneeling down, we were always asking God: ‘Where have you gone? You have abandoned us,'” he told reporters Sunday.
Rusesabagina said Rwandans used to be very proud of their country’s trust in God. There was a saying, he said, about wherever a person travels, he or she should “make sure to come to sleep in Rwanda,” because of the perception of safety. That all changed in 2004.
“God went and left and never came back,” Rusesabagina said. “This changed a lot of people’s beliefs in Rwanda.”
Various Christian groups have apologized for their complicity in the genocide and worked to rebuild the country.
French-speaking Baptists acknowledged that France and Belgium both contributed to the genocide by arming both sides and refusing to take a firm position on tribal conflict, because it would have exposed their own military, economic and moral involvement. Francophone Baptists banded together to fight AIDS and seek reconciliation.
Baptist World Aid raised funds to rebuild Rwanda’s infrastructure. The Baptist Association in Rwanda has built a training center for AIDS patients, where they can live and be trained in small socio-economic projects.
The Presbyterian Church in Rwanda recently was challenged to become a leader in the effort to heal and transform the war-torn country. The World Council of Churches in 2002 adopted the “Kigali Covenant” expressing solidarity with the people of Rwanda.
Roman Catholics, Rwanda’s largest Christian community, with an estimated 65 percent of the pre-genocide population, were criticized for a more tepid response. In 1996 Pope John Paul II wrote to the Rwandan people that the Church “cannot be held responsible for the guilt of its members that have acted against the evangelic law; they will be called to render account of their own actions.”
Rusesabagina, who now works with the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation to care for orphans and women abused by the Rwandan genocide, said he hasn’t yet seen anyone involved in true reconciliation for Rwanda.
“The best road to reconciliation is through dialogue,” he said, along the lines of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission assembled following the end of apartheid in South Africa, so far resisted by Rwanda’s new leadership.
“I believe in the power of words,” Rusesabagina said. “With words, you can find the best solution. With words we can also do a lot of evil, depending on what we want to achieve. My objective is to achieve something good.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.