As refugees come to pray, church in Rwanda must face its record Priests seek to heal rifts, come to terms with role in a nation's genocide

November 25, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIGALI, Rwanda -- Most of the crowd that packed St. Michel Roman Catholic cathedral was well-dressed yesterday morning, but the first person to walk to the altar for Communion was barefoot.

It was not certain that he was one of the half-million refugees who have returned to this country in the past 10 days, but the symbolism was strong. This was the first service since some of those refugees began arriving in this, Rwanda's capital city. Most of them walked home barefoot.

"We have not seen many of the refugees yet," said the Rev. Andre Kibanguka, the parish priest at St. Michel. "We know they have started to come back, but they are keeping to themselves. We must send some of the people in the church out to find them and tell them they are welcome."

The Catholic Church, which claims about 60 percent of Rwandans as members, has a checkered record here. Historically, it identified with the majority Hutu population as it struggled out from under the domination of the minority Tutsis. This identification was so intense that many of its priests were implicated in the 1994 genocide, when Hutus killed more than 500,000 Tutsis.

"The extent of church's involvement was exaggerated a little bit, but there are still some people in the church who do not accept what happened was genocide," Kibanguka said, emphasizing that he was speaking for himself, not for the church in Rwanda.

"We are split between Hutus and Tutsis. The first thing the church should do is reunite itself."

A Tutsi himself, Kibanguka fled the country when the government began to harass him in 1990. He was in Rome during the 1994 genocide and subsequent takeover of the government by Tutsi-led rebels. He returned a year ago.

"My father was killed in 1963," he said, explaining that it happened in a retribution raid against Tutsis in a town near Kigali. "He was a simple man who could not read or write. But some rebels had launched an assault, so someone decided that some Tutsis must die.

"They took me with him that day, but for some reason they did not kill me. They let me go. That is why I became a priest."

There was little mention of the refugees in yesterday's morning service. "Anyone who has sinned has to ask forgiveness from God," the priest told the congregation, speaking in Kinyarwanda, the indigenous language. "If there are any problems between people in the community they too have to seek forgiveness."

Kibanguka said he was elated that the refugees have come back. "I see it as a kind of victory of good over evil," he said. "These people were hostages who were in fear, constantly threatened. Now they are home."

And he is optimistic that their homecoming will not herald another cycle of ethnic violence.

"The genocide was not an ethnic thing," he said. "It was political. The people follow what their leaders say. There is no hatred between the Hutu and the Tutsi. It was that they were told to hate for 30 years. Now they are getting a different message. In 10 years' time, we will probably have repaired what has happened."

But the Rev. Augustin Karekzi, 50, a priest at a Jesuit center in Kigali who works with refugee children, said that the church has yet to do enough to send out the proper message.

"Up to now, the church has had no concept of what we should in terms of planning and counseling for addressing this terrible problem," he said. "It will come eventually. But it should have been done immediately in 1994. If it is done in 2000, so much will have been lost.

"In this country, instead of solving social problems, we shifted the emphasis to ethnic problems," said Karekzi. "We did not have strong condemnation" of the genocide.

The church also will have to address itself.

Several priests have been arrested and charged with participating in the genocide. Kibanguka said others who were implicated have fled to Europe and the United States.

Residents of the town of Kibuye, where some of the most extensive killing took place, say a priest there ordered that a church filled with Tutsis be bulldozed during the genocide. That priest is thought to be in Zaire.

In March, Pope John Paul II said that the Catholic Church could not be held responsible for the genocide. But he said "all members of the church who have sinned during the genocide must have the courage to bear the consequences of the deeds they have committed against God and against their future."

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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