Christian Churches and Genocide in Rwanda

Revision of paper originally prepared for Conference on
Genocide, Religion, and Modernity
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
May 11-13, 1997

Timothy Longman
Vassar College

In 1994, the small East African state of Rwanda was torn by one of the century's most brutal waves of ethnic and political violence. In a three month period from April to June, the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), working with trained civilian militia, systematically massacred as many as 1 million of the country's 7.7 million people. The primary targets of the violence were members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, who were chased from their homes, gathered in churches and other public buildings, ostensibly for their protection, then methodically murdered, first with grenades and guns, then with machetes and other traditional weapons. In the weeks that followed, death squads carefully hunted down and killed survivors of the large-scale massacres. While the exact portion of the Tutsi population killed in the genocide cannot be accurately determined, it seems fair to estimate that at least 80 percent of the Tutsi living in the country lost their lives.(1)

In the aftermath of this horrific bloodbath, Rwanda's Christian churches have faced extensive criticism. Many journalists, scholars, human rights activists, politicians, and even some church personnel have accused the churches not simply of failing effectively to oppose the genocide but of active complicity in the violence.(2) According to a report by a World Council of Churches team that visited Rwanda in August 1994, "In every conversation we had with the government and church people alike, the point was brought home to us that the church itself stands tainted, not by passive indifference, but by errors of commission as well."(3) My own research in Rwanda in 1992-93 and 1995-96 confirms these conclusions. According to my findings, church personnel and institutions were actively involved in the program of resistance to popular pressures for political reform that culminated in the 1994 genocide, and numerous priests, pastors, nuns, brothers, catechists, and Catholic and Protestant lay leaders supported, participated in, or helped to organize the killings.(4)

As the contents of this volume indicate, that religious institutions should be implicated in a genocide is not exceptional. In Rwanda, however, unlike the genocides of Armenians in Turkey, Jews in Europe in World War II, and Muslims in Bosnia, and to the genocidal violence between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India and Christians and various Muslim groups in Lebanon, religion did not serve as an ascriptive identifier to demarcate a social group as an essential "other."(5) Both Catholic and Protestant churches in Rwanda are multi-ethnic, and the genocide in Rwanda occurred within religious groups. In most communities members of a church parish killed their fellow parishioners and even, in a number of cases, their own pastor or priest.

Although religious identities did not separate perpetrators from victims in Rwanda, my research indicates that religion was nevertheless an essential element in the Rwandan genocide. Contrary to the claims of some church authorities,(6) the involvement of the churches went beyond a simple failure to act in the face of atrocities or the individual transgressions of church members. As I will attempt to demonstrate in this paper, the culpability of the churches lies not only in their historic role in teaching obedience to state authority and in constructing ethnic identities but also in their modern role as centers of social, political, and economic power, allied with the state, actively practicing ethnic discrimination, and working to preserve the status quo.

Christianity and the Colonial Project

Christianity and Respect for Authority

The first mission stations in Rwanda were established in 1900 by the Society of Our Lady of Africa, commonly known as the White Fathers. Monseigneur Lavigerie, the founder of the order, promoted the idea that to implant Christianity successfully in a society, missionaries should focus their efforts at conversion first and foremost on political authorities. If chiefs and kings could be convinced to adopt Christianity, Lavigerie argued, their subjects would naturally follow.(7) The principle that evangelization should focus on chiefs profoundly affected the nature of the Catholic missionary project in Rwanda and has had far reaching consequences both for the Catholic Church in Rwanda and for Rwandan society generally.

As Ian Linden demonstrates in his thorough study of church-state relations in colonial Rwanda, the leaders of the order of White Fathers consistently pushed their priests to focus their attention on converting the leaders of Rwandan society -- local chiefs, people attached to the royal court, and other important individuals. As in other countries, mission stations in Rwanda first attracted socially marginalized individuals who saw conversion as an opportunity for advancement. Some missionaries in the early decades of the century believed that the church should take up the cause of the marginalized against the powerful, arguing that setting the church up as an alternative to indigenous institutions would be an easier route to converting the population, but the leaders of the order reiterated the instruction to target prominent personalities. In the first several decades, the number of conversions remained small, but ultimately the strategy proved successful. By the 1920s, a number of nobles had converted to Christianity, and after 1931, when the missionaries were instrumental in the deposition of one king and the selection of his successor, the number of chiefs and courtiers who became Christian soared. In subsequent decades, much of the Rwandan population did in fact follow the example of their leaders and converted to Catholicism.(8)

While the strategy of focusing missionary efforts on political leaders succeeded in making Rwanda one of the most Catholic societies in Africa, it imparted a distinct character to the Catholic Church in the country. From their arrival in Rwanda, the Catholic missionaries sought to appease political authorities and avoid conflict. In practice, church-state relations were not always smooth, since Yuhi V Musinga, who served as king from 1896 to 1931, resented the power of the missionaries and frequently opposed the church, but the missionaries nevertheless sought his approval. At the same time, they cultivated supporters within the royal court, using their influence to advance pro-Catholic elements in the struggles for power within the court, and they maintained excellent relations with colonial authorities. Once they had developed a sufficient backing within the court, the missionaries actively interceded with the Belgian administration to remove Musinga from power and replace him with his most pro-Catholic son. The missionaries maintained excellent relations with Mutara III Rudahigwa, who served as king until his death in 1959, and under his reign the church flourished.(9) The idea that gaining the support of state leaders assures the smooth functioning of the church thus became accepted doctrine for Catholic leaders in Rwanda.

Linked to the desire to solicit the support of state leaders, the missionaries taught their followers to demonstrate obedience to public authorities. As in other colonies, missionaries in Rwanda played an important role in pacifying the population. As early as 1913, the German colonial administrator Dr. Kandt wrote to the vicar of Kivu, Monseigneur Hirth, the head of the White Fathers for Ruanda-Urundi, thanking him for the work of the church and requesting that mission stations be opened in another region that had yet to be fully brought under colonial control:
The missions that you have founded in the north of Rwanda contribute a good deal to the pacification of that district. They facilitate substantially the task of government. The influence of your missionaries has saved us the necessity of undertaking military expeditions. . . .(10)

In the system of indirect rule employed by the Germans and Belgians, the king remained the chief political authority in the land. Even though the missionaries themselves quietly challenged the authority of the king, they nevertheless taught their converts to respect his orders -- provided they rested within the bounds of Christian moral teachings. Even this final caveat was eliminated once Musinga was replaced by the Christian Rudahigwa. While the missionaries certainly did not introduce the idea of respecting authority to Rwanda, their advocacy of obedience as a Christian value helped to guarantee a compliant population even at a time when the system was becoming increasingly centralized and autocratic and was providing fewer material benefits to subjects.(11)

During the colonial period, Protestant missions were less significant, both in terms of political influence and number of converts, but their general conduct did not differ substantially from that of the Catholic missionaries. The first Protestant mission stations were established in 1907, but Protestant evangelism was seriously disrupted by the First World War, and new large-scale Protestant missionary efforts did not begin again until the 1930s. Like their Catholic counterparts, the Anglican, Reformed, and Adventist missionaries who established missions in Rwanda sought the favor of the state, both in its European and Rwandan embodiments. They also taught obedience to authority as an important Christian value. To some extent, once the Catholics established close ties with the state, the Protestant missions attracted socially marginalized or discontent individuals who saw these missions as an alternative to the status quo. Hence, Protestant churches were a location of greater rebelliousness. In the 1930s, a movement known as abarokore arrived in the Anglican church from Uganda and challenged the authority of the missionaries, but the missionaries moved quickly to suppress the movement, which disappeared within a few years (only to re-emerge fifty years later in a new form). Despite their position as relative outsiders, however, the Protestants did not base their appeal on rhetoric of rebellion. Rather, Protestant leaders envied the Catholics their privileged position and sought as much as possible to follow their lead in seeking support and cooperation from the state.(12) Given this fact, it is rather surprising that Rwanda did not experience the emergence of independent African Christian churches or other alternative religious movements like those that emerged in neighboring Kenya and Zaire.

In the 1950s, the close alliance between the Catholic church and the Rwandan court broke down. In the post-war period, a number of the missionaries who came to Rwanda were influenced by social-democratic philosophies and became concerned by the plight of the Hutu people who, despite constituting more than 80% of the population, were entirely excluded from political office and other opportunities for advancement. As Linden points out, while the majority of Catholic missionaries continued to sympathize with the Tutsi minority who dominated the society, the new progressive priests cultivated a Hutu counter-elite, providing opportunities for education and employment to select Hutu. The progressive priests and their Hutu protégés helped raise the consciousness among the Hutu masses of their exploitation, and in the late 1950s, ethnic tensions increased sharply. In November 1959, Hutu mobs attacked Tutsi chiefs and officials in several locations, causing thousands of Tutsi to flee the country. The Belgian administration, influenced by the missionaries, abruptly switched its allegiance from the Tutsi to the Hutu and rapidly replaced Tutsi chiefs and officials with Hutu. Rwanda achieved independence in 1962 with an almost entirely Hutu government.(13)

While Catholic support for the Hutu masses during the late 1950s would seem to represent a sharp break with Lavigerie's principle of accommodating the elite, it was in fact only a momentary change of focus. The Hutu named to replace the exiled Tutsi authorities were drawn from the Hutu counter-elite cultivated by the Catholic church, and they owed their positions substantially to the church. Grégoire Kayibanda, the first president, had served as editor of the Catholic newspaper Kinyamateka and later became head of a Catholic consumers' cooperative. Catholic missionaries sent him to Europe for training and provided him other forms of support that helped him emerge as a leader. Other Hutu officials and politicians at independence were church employees or were recruited out of Catholic seminaries. Minor conflicts between church and state arose in the 1960s as the new political class sought to demonstrate its independence from the church, but in general the alliance of church and state was even stronger after independence than during most of the colonial period.(14) A cynical reading of the Catholic Church's "support for revolution" in the 1950s as a calculated strategy to guarantee the church would be politically well situated after independence is not entirely unreasonable.
Christianity and the Construction of Ethnicity

In the introductory essay to his edited volume on the construction of ethnicity in Southern Africa, Leroy Vail argues that European Christian missionaries played a crucial role in the development of ethnic ideologies in Africa. According to Vail,

In addition to creating written languages, missionaries were instrumental in creating cultural identities through their specification of "custom" and "tradition" and by writing "tribal" histories . . . . Once these elements of culture were in place and available to be used as the cultural base of a distinct new, ascriptive ethnic identity, it could replace older organizing principles that depended upon voluntary clientage and loyalty and which, as such, showed great plasticity. Thus firm, non-porous and relatively inelastic ethnic boundaries, many of which were highly arbitrary, came to be constructed and were then strengthened by the growth of stereotypes of "the other" . . . .(15)

Vail argues that missionaries "incorporated into the curricula of their mission schools the lesson that the pupils had clear ethnic identities," and claims that they "educated local Africans who then themselves served as the most important force in shaping the new ethnic ideologies."(16) Combined with the policies of colonial administrators and the popular acceptance of ethnic ideas as a means of coping with the disruptions of modernity, the actions of missionaries helped to create the deep social divisions that are at the root of ethnic conflict in many African countries.

The role of missionaries in the construction of ethnicity in Rwanda offers an excellent example of the process that Vail describes. In Rwanda, missionaries played a primary role in creating ethnic myths and interpreting Rwandan social organization -- not only for colonial administrators, but ultimately for the Rwandan population itself. The concepts of ethnicity developed by the missionaries served as a basis for the German and Belgian colonial policies of indirect rule which helped to transform relatively flexible pre-colonial social categories into clearly defined ethnic groups. Following independence, leaders who were trained in church schools relied extensively on ethnic ideologies to gain support, thus helping to intensify and solidify ethnic divisions.

The exact meaning of the categories of Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa in pre-colonial Rwanda, Burundi, and Zaire is a subject of considerable debate among scholars. Nearly all scholars, however, agree that the three were not clearly distinct and rigidly separated ethnic groups. The three groups shared a common language and common religious practices, and they lived in the same communities throughout the region. The groups were distinguished primarily by their position within the political and economic system, which assigned members of each group specific economic activities and social roles. The Tutsi, who are generally thought to have constituted about 14% of the population, dominated most political offices and made their living predominantly from raising cattle, while the Hutu, who made up around 85% of the population, worked primarily as farmers. The Twa lived as hunters and gatherers and fulfilled certain social functions such as making pottery. Intermarriage between Hutu and Tutsi was relatively common, and those Hutu who acquired cattle, the traditional sign of wealth and source of power in the ubuhake patron-client system, could eventually be considered Tutsi, a process known as icyihuture . While the Tutsi clearly gained the greatest benefits from this system, each group had certain economic opportunities reserved for it, and a complex political system of overlapping chieftaincies helped to prevent the concentration of power.(17)

When colonial administrators and Catholic missionaries arrived in Rwanda, they were enchanted by the Tutsi rulers they encountered. To the missionaries, the Tutsi seemed tall and elegant, with refined features and light skin, in some ways closer in appearance to Europeans than to their short, stocky, dark Hutu compatriots. As elsewhere in Africa, in order to convert the population in Rwanda, the missionaries considered it important to understand the indigenous culture and social structures, and the interpretations that came from their study of the culture greatly influenced both the colonial administration and, subsequently, Rwandan self-perceptions. Influenced by contemporary European notions of race which held that the world could be divided into clearly defined and hierarchically ranked racial and national groups, the missionaries, ignoring important divisions within each of the groups, viewed Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa as three distinct peoples representing three separate waves of immigration. They viewed the Twa as the autochthonous population, the original inhabitants of the region, who many centuries earlier were subdued by Bantu migrants from the west who became the Hutu. According to the missionary account, the Tutsi arrived from the northeast sometime later, around 1600, and because of their clear superiority, conquered the Hutu, whom they had ruled ever since. Doubting that Africans could have designed so complex and efficient a political system, the missionaries hypothesized that the Tutsi were not really African but a Hamitic or Semitic group from the Middle East, perhaps a lost tribe of Israel.(18)

The Tutsi, not surprisingly, failed to challenge the missionaries' assertions of their superiority and instead participated in the development of a mythico-history that portrayed them as natural rulers, with superior intelligence and morals. When the Catholic Church began to recruit native Rwandan clergy early in the century (the first native-born priest was ordained in 1917), they selected exclusively Tutsi, and these priests, nuns, and brothers played an important role in interpreting Rwandan history and culture. A group of Tutsi intellectuals emerged within the church -- most importantly historian Alexis Kagame and Bishop Aloys Bigirumwami -- whose anthropological and historical texts, based largely on oral histories, reinforced many of the ideas of strict ethnic separation and Tutsi political dominance. As Alison DesForges writes, "In a great and unsung collaborative enterprise over a period of decades, Europeans and Rwandan intellectuals created a history of Rwanda that fit European assumptions and accorded with Tutsi interests."(19) This history became widely accepted by Rwandans of all ethnicities, and following the transfer of power from Tutsi to Hutu after the 1959 revolution, Hutu leaders used the historical account of centuries of ethnically based exploitation to inspire support among the Hutu masses.

The policy of indirect rule implemented by both the Germans and Belgians (after they took control of the colony during World War I) left the Rwandan monarchy in place, using the existing political structures to administer colonial policies. The system lost much of its complexity, as power became increasingly centralized. Since indirect rule required identifying indigenous authorities, the Belgian administration registered all of the population in the 1930s and issued identity cards that designated each person's ethnicity. This and other policies effectively eliminated the flexibility in Rwanda's ethnic structure, making it "almost impossible for Hutu to become Tutsi just at a time when being Tutsi brought all the advantages."(20) Educational, employment, and economic opportunities were reserved for Tutsi, producing a huge gap between the ethnic groups which was at the root of the Hutu anger and resentment that inspired the 1959 insurrection.

The shift in missionary support from Tutsi to Hutu in the 1950s did not substantially alter either the nature of the Rwandan ethnic system or the role of the churches in defining ethnicity in Rwanda. While myths of Tutsi superiority and a long history of dominance over the Hutu served to justify continued Tutsi control of Rwanda in the early colonial period, the same inaccurate history became justification for revolution in the era following World War II. The new "progressive" missionaries who championed the cause of the Hutu in the 1950s promoted an ideology of exploitation that identified the Tutsi as the culprits in Rwandan history while ignoring exploitation by the German and Belgian colonial rulers. Hence, when a Hutu uprising occurred in 1959, attacks were directed against the Tutsi rather than the Belgian administrators.(21) The inaccurate idea promulgated by the missionaries that Tutsi had grossly exploited the Hutu for centuries continues to shape Hutu understandings of Rwandan history and eventually became a primary ideological justification for genocide.

The Churches in Post-Colonial Rwanda

The roots of Christian church complicity in the Rwandan genocide, thus, lie to a substantial degree in the role of missions as part of the colonial project, helping both to subdue the Rwandan population and to shape ethnic self-identity. The mission churches developed a close alliance with the state during the colonial period, an alliance that continued after independence when a Hutu elite that owed its rise to power to the Catholic Church took over the reigns of government. After the disruptions of the 1959 uprising, the churches returned to teaching a theology of obedience, which they justified now not with conservative notions of the destiny of superior social groups to rule but with populist ideas of the Hutu as the exploited masses now coming into their own. The military coup in 1973 that drove the regime of Grégoire Kayibanda from power, after a decade of economic stagnation and disruptive ethnic violence, did not substantially upset the close alliance of church and state, as the new military President, Juvénal Habyarimana, identified himself as a devout Catholic. Although Habyarimana did not owe his position to the churches, he recognized their influence within Rwanda and actively courted their support. The churches, in turn, welcomed his rise to power and offered their own support to his new regime.

In addition to the legacy of close church-state ties that continued after independence, the role of Christian churches in shaping ethnic relations in colonial Rwandan has continued to have a profound impact on post-colonial ethnic politics. The missionaries and their Rwandan protégés played an essential role in eliminating the flexibility in Rwanda's ethnic structure, creating a rigidly defined system in which the Tutsi monopolized power and benefits. The national history they constructed presented this new structure as an historical artifact and became a basis for pride among the Tutsi and, later, resentment among the Hutu. Just as the churches had previously been the champions of the "noble Watusi", at independence they became champions of the humble Hutu, and having played a vital role in the ethnic transfer of power, the churches remained largely silent as ethnic violence occurred repeatedly in the early 1960s and again in 1973. The ties of the churches to state power were increased in the 1960s even as the state was espousing Hutu ethno-nationalist rhetoric that fostered a climate of fear and violence.

To fully explain the active involvement of church leaders and institutions in the Rwandan genocide, however, requires exploring not only the colonial legacy, but also the position of churches within post-colonial Rwandan society. In a society where a single party state dominated most aspects of public life, the churches were the largest non-state organizations. The Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement (MRND) established by President Habyarimana in 1975 as Rwanda's only political party served not simply as a tool for organizing public support for the regime but as a means of monitoring and regulating the population. Women's organizations, youth groups, labor unions, and farmer's cooperatives were subsumed under the party umbrella, and all citizens were required to be MRND members and to pay party dues. Churches were among the only organizations that remained outside formal party control as ostensibly autonomous organizations. They were nevertheless integrated into the system of power through a variety of means. The archbishop of the Catholic church held a seat on the central committee of the MRND for a decade, while the leaders of the Presbyterian and Anglican churches also held important MRND positions.

To view the churches, however, as weak institutions, unable to challenge the state as some apologists have suggested in the aftermath of the genocide,(22) is to grossly misconstrue the relationship between church and state in Rwanda and to ignore the substantial independent power that the churches enjoyed. In the 1991 census, 89.8 percent of the population claimed membership in a Christian Church -- 62.6 percent claimed to be Catholic, 18.8 percent Protestant, and 8.4 percent Seventh Day Adventist.(23) The churches, thus, had a very large constituency which they could potentially mobilize, and through their parishes, they had excellent access to people at all levels of society. The resources the churches could draw from their members were augmented substantially by contributions from international church bodies. Each church ran offices of education, health, and development, which oversaw significant expenditures throughout the country. In my field research, I found that churches represented a massive presence within Rwandan society and economy. Particularly in rural areas, where the state's presence was more limited, the population turned to churches not only for spiritual needs, but as their primary social center, for healthcare, for education, for assistance in developing economic alternatives, and for charity. With few natural resources and a very low level of industrialization, churches were the largest off-farm employers in many rural areas.

The significant financial and human resources controlled by the churches made them important centers of power within Rwanda. People holding church offices, such as pastors, priests, and school directors, generally lived in brick houses, often with running water or electricity, they had access to vehicles, and their children could attend secondary school. In a society with high levels of malnutrition, periodic famine, and other vestiges of severe poverty, these advantages set them apart from other people in their communities. Church employment also presented opportunities for personal enrichment and a chance to assist family and friends. As a result, patrimonial networks developed within Rwanda churches like the patrimonial networks that state officers used to organize their support. In the Presbyterian Church, for example, members of the president's family and people from his home community in Kibuye Prefecture dominated prominent positions throughout the country, from the director of development to the secretaries in the national church office.

In theory, churches in Rwanda could have used their independent bases of power to challenge state power. There was potential for church-state conflict, since the imperatives of the state and the churches were not identical, and in fact conflict did arise over various issues, such as a conflict over birth control policy in the 1980s. In general, however, the churches and the state cooperated closely. Both institutions, building on the history of cooperation established during the colonial era, found that they could function more effectively by working together on education, health care, and development. The interests of the church employees at all levels were closer to the parallel state elite, with whom they may have attended school and who lived a similar privileged lifestyle, than to the rest of society. In the local communities I studied, I found that strong reciprocal relationships existed between church, state, and business elites. They often socialized together, and they frequently cooperated on business ventures. These links were true at the national level as well. President Habyarimana and the Catholic archbishop were known to be close friends, and they frequently appeared together at public events. Leaders of the churches, like leaders of the state, had a vested interest in preserving the status quo that had allowed them to gain significant privilege and power.

Given the links between church and state, it should not be surprising, then, that when demands for democratic reform began to emerge in Rwanda in the early 1990s, the churches generally offered little support.(24) The Habyarimana regime had enjoyed strong popular favor during its first decade, since it had attracted extensive international development investment and had effectively managed the volatile ethnic situation. By the mid-1980s, however, the population was becoming increasingly discontent with the regime, resenting high levels of official corruption and the opulent lifestyles of state officials. A collapse in the price of coffee, Rwanda's primary export, seriously affected both small farmers and the middle class. As governments internationally came under pressure to allow greater democracy and increased personal freedom, the continuing repression of the Habyarimana regime stood out, and people in Rwanda began to object increasingly to required MRND membership, communal labor, and loyalty rituals. Hutu from the south of the country and Tutsi objected to the monopoly that Hutu from Habyarimana's home region in the north held on political positions.

In 1989, an explosion of new publications appeared in Rwanda after the oldest paper in the country, the Catholic biweekly Kinyamateka , began to ignore censorship rules and published open accounts about corruption and the country's economic problems. Various groups that had begun to emerge in the 1980s outside the auspices of the MRND, such as women's groups, youth associations, and informal associations of intellectuals, became increasingly politicized and began to demand that Habyarimana implement democratic reforms. The democracy movement in Rwanda gained momentum after the national conferences in Benin and Congo in February 1990 replaced authoritarian rulers in those countries. Feeling increasingly pressured, Habyarimana announced in July 1990 that he would allow a free debate on the country's future and would begin to implement reforms. Believing that Habyarimana was sufficiently vulnerable that he could easily be driven from power, a rebel army based in Uganda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), composed primarily of Tutsi refugees from the ethnic violence of the 1960s and 1970s, invaded Rwanda in October 1990, adding further pressures on the regime but also providing Habyarimana with a justification for cracking down on his critics.

Some church personnel and institutions, like Kinyamateka , supported the democracy movement, and the Catholic hierarchy even published pastoral letters in February and May that in vague terms denounced corruption and called for expanded respect for human rights. In general, however, the churches offered little support to those groups and individuals seeking to force the state to accept reforms. After the October RPF invasion, Habyarimana's government arrested thousands of Tutsi and southern Hutu. Church leaders refused to support human rights groups that formed to object to the arrests, and the Catholic hierarchy, in a pastoral letter released shortly after the outbreak of the war, expressed strong support for the government and entirely ignored the issue of detention, ignoring even the detention of several Tutsi priests. When a new constitution was adopted in June 1991 and opposition parties were legalized, the national leaders of each of the major churches, as well as many regional and local church leaders, remained public supporters of the MRND.

As both the demands for democratic reform and the war continued to expand over the next several years, Habyarimana and his allies turned increasingly to ethnic arguments to bolster their support. Even as he publicly accepted political reforms that legalized opposition parties, Habyarimana sought to undermine the new parties by portraying them as traitors to the interests of the Hutu. Rhetoric on state radio and in MRND newspapers incited the population with claims that the RPF was fighting to re-establish the monarchy and once again exploit the Hutu. Ethnic tensions were heightened by a series of massacres of Tutsi that occurred in various parts of the country, beginning just after the start of the war. While the government portrayed these massacres as spontaneous expressions of public anger over the war, investigations by local and international human rights groups revealed that in each case government or MRND party officials were involved in organizing and carrying out the violence.(25)
The Christian churches met the massacres of Tutsi that took place from 1990-1993 with resounding silence, even when on several occasions church property and personnel were targeted. This silence confirmed for most Rwandans the widely held assumption that church leaders were themselves biased against Tutsi. Ethnic issues within the Christian churches in independent Rwanda were quite complex. Because of limitations in other spheres of employment (Tutsi were almost entirely excluded from government jobs under both Kayibanda and Habyarimana), Tutsi were actually disproportionately represented among both Catholic and Protestant clergy. Leadership positions, however, were reserved for Hutu. The churches themselves practiced ethnic discrimination, such as a much discussed incident in 1988 in which a Tutsi who was appointed bishop in the Catholic Church withdrew "for personal reasons" just before his installation; rumors spread that he withdrew under pressure from Habyarimana and the archbishop, who did not want another Tutsi bishop (one of the eight bishops, named before independence, was Tutsi). In the Protestant churches, Hutu held the prominent offices, while Tutsi were relegated to obscure parishes and less influential positions. During the period of democratic reform and renewed ethnic conflict in the early 1990s, church leaders completely failed to condemn ethnic violence and to support political reforms, but instead lent their support to the government that was organizing the violence.

The Genocide and the Churches

Although the Western media portrayed the 1994 genocide as a product of "centuries old" intractable divisions between Hutu and Tutsi "tribes," in fact genocide in Rwanda was never inevitable. Genocide was the final product of a strategy used by close supporters of President Habyarimana to preserve their power by appealing to ethnic arguments. Since Hutu and Tutsi continued to intermarry regularly and lived together in relative peace in most communities, the strategy required going well beyond reminding the Hutu of Tutsi dominance during the colonial period to create an atmosphere of fear and misunderstanding. The president's allies launched a concerted propaganda effort, using the print media, public meetings, and -- most importantly -- the radio, to characterize the Tutsi as an "essential other." The propaganda built on the mythico-history of Hamitic conquerors to claim that the Tutsi were foreigners who had come to Rwanda to exploit the rightful occupants, the Hutu, and should be "sent back down the Nile."(26) With the largely Tutsi RPF attacking the borders of the country, claims that the Tutsi still sought to subdue the Hutu gained credence, and Tutsi within Rwanda could be scapegoated as RPF agents, effectively diverting public attention from the government corruption and repression that had inspired the democracy movement. By identifying the opponents of the President as traitors to the Hutu, supporters of Habyarimana were able to discredit and divide the opposition parties, and by accepting a role in a coalition government installed in 1992, the opposition parties relinquished their position as a clear alternative to the Habyarimana regime and lost much of their popular appeal.(27)

The groundwork for genocide was laid over a period of several years. The small-scale massacres that began in 1990 helped condition the population for larger massacres later. In 1992 a group of hardline Hutu created a new extreme political party, the Coalition for the Defense of the Republic (CDR), that appealed to supporters with virulently anti-Tutsi rhetoric. While publicly more extreme in its positions than the MRND, the CDR in fact cooperated closely with the ruling party, allowing MRND leaders to resist compromise with the RPF and the internal opposition by pressuring the MRND from the far right. As one source told me, "The CDR says what MRND leaders think but cannot say." Meanwhile, the MRND transformed its youth wing, the Interahamwe , into a militia, and the armed forces provided para-military training to both the Interahamwe and a new CDR militia. After the government and RPF signed a peace accord in August 1993 that would have brought the RPF into the government and integrated them into the Rwandan armed forces, the president's supporters sought to ensure that the accords would never be implemented. They intensified their propaganda efforts, creating a new radio station, Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) to broadcast propaganda against Tutsi and moderate Hutu.(28) The armed forces expanded militia training and began distributing arms to civilians. At some point in late 1993 or early 1994, a group of officials close to the president drew up a plan to guarantee their power through a massive campaign of violence that would eliminate all of their opponents, including Tutsi and prominent moderate Hutu.

The genocide ultimately had much more to do with the contemporary political concerns of an authoritarian regime under attack than with "ancient tribal hatreds," and as such it could have been averted. The military support offered to the Habyarimana regime by France and other countries helped the regime to rebuild its strength at a moment when domestic opposition had seriously weakened its position. The vast expansion of the military that foreign support made possible -- from about 5,000 troops at the beginning of the war to more than 50,000 in 1992 -- allowed the government to place soldiers throughout the country, who harassed and subdued the population and eventually oversaw the implementation of genocide.(29) Even with the military expansion, genocide could have been prevented if efforts had been made to counter the ideological and logistical preparations. Although they could not have singlehandedly stopped the genocide, the Christian churches were nevertheless the organizations best situated within Rwanda to challenge the progress toward genocide, because they remained the largest non-state actors even with the explosion of civil society associations in the preceding decade.

Some individuals and agencies within the churches did, in fact, contest the scapegoating of Tutsi. A number of progressive pastors and priests supported the work of human rights groups, helping, among other things, to provide information about massacres. The Catholic newspaper, Kinyamateka , continued to speak out in favor of reform and denounced the rising ethnic tension as diversionary. IWACU , a national center for cooperatives with close ties to both Catholic and Protestant churches, organized civic education projects. The Catholic bishop of Kabgayi issued several letters in 1992 and 1993 demanding political reform and criticizing his church for its inaction, and in late 1993, the Catholic bishop of Nyundo, the diocese in Habyarimana's northern home region, published a letter denouncing the training of civilian militia and the distribution of arms to civilians. In my own research, I encountered church personnel in several of the communities where I studied who, at some personal risk, called for ethnic unity and denounced government abuses.

On the whole, however, the churches did little to halt the build up to genocide. Many church leaders had profited substantially from the status quo and had a vested interest in preserving the existing configurations of power. With several bishops refusing to sign onto more forceful statements -- the Catholic archbishop was a close friend of the president, and another bishop was from the president's family -- the Catholic episcopacy during the period leading up to the genocide published only vague and non-specific pastoral letters, calling for ethnic peace without referring to any actual instances of ethnic violence. Protestant leaders, many of whom also had close associations with the regime, were similarly circumspect. As tensions in the country mounted in late 1993, particularly after the first Hutu president of Burundi was killed in an attempted coup in October, Catholic and Protestant hierarchies fell entirely silent. My research found that local and regional church leaders were as reticent to criticize the government as their national counterparts. In one Catholic parish in the north of the country where the communal mayor had overseen a massacre of several hundred Tutsi in 1991, the sister in charge of the parish told me in 1992 that polygamy was the major problem in her community. In several of the parishes where I conducted research, church employees and prominent lay leaders took leadership roles in the CDR and Interahamwe . I have no evidence that any church personnel were among the small cadre of people who ultimately drew up the plans for genocide, but church leaders certainly made no concerted effort to hinder the expansion of ethnic ideologies and hatreds, to condemn the scapegoating of Tutsi, and to oppose the growing militarization of society that made the genocide possible.

When the genocide finally occurred, church personnel and institutions were, not surprisingly, intimately involved. Just hours after President Habyarimana's death in a mysterious plane crash on April 6, 1994 (probably the work of his own presidential guard), elite troops spread out into Kigali with lists of people to kill -- opposition politicians, leaders of the civil society, and prominent Tutsi. Over the next few weeks, the violence expanded throughout the country, as the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and the Interahamwe militia targeted the entire Tutsi population, men, women, and children. Orders traveled through a pre-established network, and a pattern of attack occurred with frightening consistency from one community to the next: The local militia attacked Tutsi families, burning their homes, killing some Tutsi, and driving out the rest. Local politicians then encouraged Tutsi to gather in a central location, usually a church, ostensibly for their security. Once the Tutsi population of the community was assembled, the militia moved in, often with the support of troops, and systematically massacred the gathered Tutsi. In many communities, a handful of moderate Hutu were killed early in the violence as a warning to other Hutu. After the large scale massacre was complete, the entire male population of the community was organized into security patrols that acted as death squads, searching homes where sympathetic Hutu had hidden their Tutsi friends and family and setting up barricades where Tutsi trying to flee could be stopped; anyone wanting to pass the barricade had to show an identity card that indicated their ethnicity.

The church was implicated in the genocide in numerous ways. People who sought sanctuary in church buildings were instead slaughtered there. According to some estimates, more people were killed in church buildings than anywhere else.(30) At one parish where I researched, the communal mayor reports that 17,000 bodies were unearthed from one set of latrines alongside the church. Numerous Tutsi priests, pastors, brothers, and nuns were killed, often by their own parishioners, sometimes by their fellow clergy. While the failure of the population to respect the principle of sanctuary cannot be blamed on the churches, the failure of the church leadership to condemn massacres on church property and attacks on church personnel in the years preceding the genocide clearly undermined the principle of sanctuary in Rwanda.

In some parishes Hutu clergy attempted to protect those gathered within their church, but in many others, clergy assisted the killers. One Tutsi woman who was a teacher at the Catholic grade school in Kaduha in Gikongoro prefecture told me:

The priest, Nyandwe, came to my house. My husband [who is Hutu] was not there. Nyandwe asked my children, "Where is she?" They said that I was sick. He came into the house, entering even into my bedroom. He said, "Come! I will hide you, because there is an attack." ... He said "I'll take you to the CND [police]." He grabbed me by the arm and took me by force. He dragged me out into the street and we started to go by foot toward the church. But arriving on the path, I saw a huge crowd. There were many people, wearing banana leaves, carrying machetes. I broke free from him and ran. I went to hide in the home of a friend. He wanted to turn me over to the crowd that was preparing to attack the church. It was he who prevented people from leaving the church.(31)

In a number of communities where I conducted research, people testified that pastors and priests and other church employees participated in the violence that occurred. Church personnel were apparently involved in meetings held in mid-April in which the organizers of the genocide told mayors in the southern prefectures of Butare, Gikongoro, and Gitarama, many of whom had resisted the genocide and protected their Tutsi citizens, that they would be removed if they did not support the genocide. It was immediately after these meetings that the massacres began in these areas. There are numerous examples of clergy who turned people over to be killed. In one incident in May, the Catholic archbishop himself turned over to a death squad a number of nuns and priests gathered at the cathedral at Kabgayi.(32) In several cases I investigated, clergy participated in death squads. In some cases, clergy helped to locate parishioners who were in hiding.(33)

In response to the massacres, the church hierarchies remained mostly silent. Catholic and Protestant leaders signed a joint letter in May that called for an end to massacres yet failed to condemn them or to characterize the violence as genocide.(34) Church leaders otherwise refused to speak out, portraying the genocide as a justified defensive action within the context of a civil war. When the government collapsed in advance of an RPF victory, most church leaders fled with the government into exile in Zaire. Even today, many of these former church officials now in exile deny that a genocide occurred.

The result of the participation by clergy and the silence of the official church is clear. Many Christians clearly believed that in participating in the massacre of Tutsi, they were doing the will of the church. In a number of cases, people apparently paused in the process of carrying out massacres to pray at the church altar. In Ngoma parish, a Tutsi priest who was hidden during the war in the sanctuary by his fellow Hutu priests told me, "People came and demanded that my fellow priest reopen the church and hold mass. People came to mass each day to pray, then they went out to kill."(35)


Given the facts that I have presented, it should be clear that the failings of the Rwandan churches during the genocide were not the result of a few corrupt individuals but rather were deeply rooted in the very nature of Christianity in Rwanda. The manner in which Christianity was implanted in Rwanda and the policies and ideas promoted by missionaries began a transformation of Rwandan society that ultimately made genocide possible. After independence, the churches stood as important centers of social, economic, and political power, but rather than using their power to support the rights of the population, the churches were integrated into wider structures of power that allowed wealth and privilege to become concentrated in the hands of a select few. The churches as institutions worked with the state to preserve existing configurations of power in the face of increased public pressure for reform, ultimately culminating in the strategy of genocide. While never publicly endorsing genocide, the churches nevertheless are complicit because they helped to create and maintain the authoritarian and divided society that made genocide possible and because the entanglement of the churches with the state made the churches partners in state policy. People could thus kill their fellow Christians on church property and believe that their actions were consistent with church teachings. The complicity of the churches in the genocide is not merely a failing of Christianity in Rwanda, but of world Christianity as it has established itself in Africa, and it should lead people of faith throughout the world to question the nature of religious institutions and the ways in which they exercise their power.


(1) The exact ethnic composition of Rwanda is difficult to determine, in part because of the relatively flexible nature of ethnic identity. The generally accepted figure for ethnic distribution -- 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi, 1% Twa -- is based on official colonial estimates that do not take into account the flight of thousands of Tutsi from the country during the first period of ethnic violence from 1959 and 1973. The 1991 census estimated the Tutsi population at just under 10%, but these figures are again suspect given the politically charged nature of ethnicity in the country and the large numbers of Tutsi who had sought to mask their identity and pass as Hutu. The actual number of Tutsi in Rwanda at the time of the genocide probably lies somewhere between the estimates of 770,000 and 1,078,000.
(2) African Rights, Death, Despair, and Defiance (London, 1995); "Archbishop Carey's Visit to Rwanda: Rwandan church voice 'silent' during massacres, Carey says," Ecumenical News International, May 16, 1995; Julian Bedford, "Rwanda's churches bloodied by role in genocide," Reuters, October 18, 1994; Raymond Bonner, "Clergy in Rwanda is Accused of Abetting Atrocities: French Church Gives Refuge to One Priest," The New York Times , July 7, 1995, p. A3; "Churches in the Thick of Rwandan violence," The Christian Century , November 8, 1995, pp. 1041-1042; Joshua Hammer, "Blood on the Altar: Rwanda: What did you do in the war Father?," Newsweek , September 4, 1995, p. 36; Gary Haugen, "Rwanda's Carnage: Survivors describe how churches provided little protection in the face of genocide," Christianity Today , February 6, 1995, p. 52; Donatella Lorch, "The Rock that Crumbled: The Church in Rwanda," The New York Times , October 17, 1994, p. A4; Thomas O'Hara, "Rwandan bishops faltered in face of crisis," National Catholic Reporter , September 29, 1995; Wolfgang Schonecke, "The Role of the Church in Rwanda," America , June 17, 1995; Dominique Sigaud, "Genocide: le dossier noir de l'Eglise rwandaise," Le Nouvel Observateur , February 1-7, 1996, pp. 50-51; "Sin and Confession in Rwanda," The Economist , January 14, 1995, p. 39; Henri Tincq, "Le fardeau rwandais de Jean Paul II, Le monde , May 23, 1996; Alan Zarembo, "The church's shameful acts: Many Rwandans refuse to return to sanctuaries where blood was spilled," Houston Chronicle , January 29, 1995.
(3) "Rwandan churches culpable, says WCC," The Christian Century , August 24-31, 1994, p. 778.
(4) My initial field research in 1992-93 served as a basis for my PhD dissertation and was funded in part by the Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin and the Board of Higher Education of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). My second period of research in 1995-96 was conducted under the auspices of Human Rights Watch/Africa and the Fédération International des Ligues des Droits de l'Homme (FIDH).
(5) See Henri Zukier's informative description of the Christian identification of Jews as an essential "other" in European history. Henri Zukier, "The Essential 'Other' and the Jew: From Antisemitism to Genocide," Social Research vol. 63, no. 4, winter 1996, pp. 1110-1154.
(6) C.f., "Pope says Church is not to Blame in Rwanda," New York Times , March 21, 1996, A3; Ian Linden, "The Churches and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwandan Tragedy," Month July 1995, 28:256-263.
(7) Ian Linden, Church and Revolution in Rwanda , New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1977; Justin Kalibwami, Le catholicisme et la société rwandaise, 1900-1962 , Paris: Presence Africaine, 1991.
(8) Linden, Church and Revolution in Rwanda . See also, Alison Liebhafsky DesForges, Defeat is the Only Bad News: Rwanda Under Musinga, 1896-1931 (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1972); Ferdinand Nahimana, Le blanc est arrivé, le roi est parti, Kigali: Printer Set, 1987.
(9) DesForges, Defeat is the Only Bad News ; Kalibwami, Le catholicisme et la société rwandaise ; Linden, Church and Revolution in Rwanda ; Nahimana, Le blanc est arrivé, le roi est parti .
(10) Quoted in Kalibwami, Le catholicisme et la société rwandaise , p. 169.
(11) For a masterful discussion of the process of political centralization and the growth of inequality, see Catharine Newbury, The Cohesion of Oppression: Clientship and Ethnicity in Rwanda, 1869-1960 , New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
(12) Tharcisse Gatwa and André Karamaga, La présence protestante: Les autres Chrétiens rwandais , Kigali: Editions URWEGO, 1990; Michel Twagirayesu and Jan van Butselaar, Ce don que nous avons reçu: Histoire de l'Eglise Presbytérienne au Rwanda , Kigali: EPR, 1982; Linden, Church and revolution in Rwanda .
(13) Linden, Church and Revolution in Rwanda ; René Lemarchand, Rwanda and Burundi , New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970.
(14) Lemarchand, Rwanda and Burundi ; Linden, Church and Revolution .
(15) Leroy Vail, "Introduction: Ethnicity in Southern African History," in The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa , edited by Leroy Vail, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989, pp. 1-19. Citation from p. 12.
(16) Ibid.
(17) Newbury, The Cohesion of Oppression ; Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide , New York: Columbia University Press, 1995; Alison DesForges, Genocide in Rwanda , New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998.
(18) DesForges, Genocide in Rwanda ; Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis , pp. 5-23. The idea first developed by John Hanning Speke, Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (London, 1863) that the cattle-raising people of the region were descendants of a conquering tribe from Ethiopia shaped missionary notions of the Tutsi as a separate people. Speculations about the Semitic or Hamitic origins of the Tutsi appeared in the earliest missionary reports and writings, but received their most famous articulation in André Pagès, Un royaume Hamite au centre de l'Afrique Brussels: Institut royal du Congo Belge, 1933.
(19) Kalibwami, Le catholicisme et la société rwandaise , pp. 236-253; Linden, Church and Revolution . Quotation from Alison DesForges, "The Ideology of Genocide," Crisis: A Journal of Opinion , 23, 2, 1995, p. 45.
(20) Human Rights Watch, Playing the "Communal Card:" Communal Violence and Human Rights , New York: Human Rights Watch, 1995, p. 2.
(21) Linden, Church and Revolution .
(22) Saskia Van Hoyweghen, "The Disintegration of the Catholic Church of Rwanda: A Study of the Fragmentation of Political and Religious Authority," African Affairs , July 1996, 95, no. 380, 379-402; Alan Cowell, "In Rwanda, Catholics in the Crossfire: Killings Provoke a Sense of Failure," The New York Times , June 12, 1994, p. 9; "Churches agonize over Rwanda horror," The Christian Century , May 4, 1994, p. 464; Linden, "The Churches and Genocide."
(23) Government of Rwanda, Recensement General de la Population et de l'Habitat au 15 Août 1991: Analyse des Resultats Definitifs, Kigali: April 1994, pp. 126-128.
(24) I discuss the tepid support churches offered to the democracy movement in "Christianity and Democratisation in Rwanda: Assessing Church Responses to Political Crisis in the 1990s," in Paul Gifford, ed., The Christian Churches and the Democratisation of Africa , Leiden: EJ Brill, 1995, pp. 188-204.
(25) FIDH, Human Rights Watch, et al., "Rapport de la Commission Internationale d'Enquête sur les Violations des Droits de l'Homme au Rwanda depuis le 1er Octobre 1990 (7-21 janvier 1993)" Paris: FIDH, March 1993; Association Rwandaise Pour la Defense des Droits de la Personne et des Libertés Publiques (ADL), Rapport sur les Droits de l'Homme au Rwanda Kigali: ADL, December 1992.
(26) Leon Mugesera, later one of the chief architects of the genocide, was the first to demand that the Tutsi be sent back down the Nile in a speech to MRND party members in 1992.
(27) Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis , offers the most comprehensive discussion of the build up to genocide in Rwanda, focusing in particular on the effect of the RPF invasion on domestic politics.
(28) Article 19, Broadcasting Genocide: Censorship, Propaganda and State-Sponsored Violence in Rwanda 1990-1994 (London: Article 19, 1996) and Jean-Pierre Chrétien, with Jean-François Dupaquier, Marcel Kabanda, and Joseph Ngarambe, Rwanda: les medias de la haine (Paris: Karthala, 1995) both provide excellent discussions of the role radio and print media played in distributing propaganda and promoting the genocide.
(29) Africa Watch, "Arming Rwanda: The Arms Trade and Human Rights Abuses in the Rwandan War," (New York: Africa Watch, January 1994).
(30) This assertion by Africa Rights in Death, Despair and Defiance (London: 1995) is borne out by my own research.
(31) From interview conducted in Kaduha by the author on June 12, 1996, in French and Kinyarwanda.
(32) This according to Alison DesForges.
(33) Bedford, "Rwanda's churches bloodied."
(34) Bedford, "Rwanda's churches bloodied."
(35) Interview conducted by the author March 26, 1996, in Ngoma in French.