Pope asks forgiveness for role of Church in Rwanda genocide

Pope Francis has met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and asked forgiveness for the "sins and failings" of the Catholic Church and its members. Some priests fanned and aided the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.

While meeting Kagame in the Vatican, Pope Francis said that he hoped the apology would help a "future of peace."

"He implored anew God's forgiveness for the sins and failings of the Church and its members, among whom priests, and religious men and women who succumbed to hatred and violence, betraying their own evangelical mission," the Catholic Church said in a statement.

Portrait of Paul Kagame

Between April and July of 1994, members of Rwandan Hutu majority indiscriminately killed around 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in a 100-day genocide. Several survivors said that Catholic priests and nuns personally killed members of the Tutsi minority. Others testified that the clergy betrayed people who tried to seek refugee in Catholic churches.

Africa | 04.04.2014

During the ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the genocide in 2014, Kagame himself accused the Catholic Church of having "participated fully" in establishing the colonial ideology that created the chasm between Hutus and Tutsis.

Paul Kagame, now the president of Rwanda, led a military force that eventually stopped the genocide in 1994.

Church still 'protects' the guilty

Rwandan bishops signed a letter of apology that was read in all Catholic churches in the country last November. However, the government in Kigali said that this gesture was not enough.

The Church is now "facilitating" efforts to heal the society and help the survivors, according to Rwanda's top diplomat, Louise Mushikiwabo, who also traveled to Vatican with Kagame.

However, Mushikiwabo said that there are still people protecting genocide perpetrators.

"Today, genocide denial and trivialization continue to flourish in certain groups within the Church and genocide suspects have been shielded from justice within Catholic institutions," she said.

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While the Vatican still has a strong presence in Rwanda, with almost 44 percent of the population identifying as Catholic, many worshipers turned to other Christian denominations after the genocide.

How it all began

On April 6, 1994, unidentified attackers shot down a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana as it was about to land at Kigali airport. President Habyarimana, his Burundian counterpart and eight other passengers died in the crash. The next day, organized killings began. Massacres continued over the course of three months, and at least 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives.

Targeted killings

After the assassination of the president, Hutu extremists attacked the Tutsi minority and Hutus who stood in their way. The murderers were well-prepared and targeted human rights activists, journalists and politicians. One of the first victims on April 7 was Prime Minister Agathe Uwiringiymana.

Appeals for help

In January 1994, Romeo Dallaire, commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), already wanted to act on information he had received about an "anti-Tutsi extermination" plot. But the warning he sent to the UN on January 11, later known as the "genocide fax", went unheard. And so did his desperate appeals after the genocide began, which were all rejected.

Hate media

The Mille Collines radio station (RTLM) and Kangura, a weekly magazine, stoked ethnic hatred. In 1990 Kangura published the racist "Hutu Ten Commandments." Mille Collines radio, which was popular for its pop music and sports programs, fuelled the genocide by urging Hutu civilians to hunt down and kill Tutsis. Director Milo Rau devoted his film "Hate Radio" to these appalling broadcasts (photo).

Refuge in a hotel

In Kigali, Paul Rusesabagina hid over 1,000 people in the Hotel Des Mille Collines. Rusesabagina had taken over the position of the hotel's Belgian manager, who left the country. With a great deal of alcohol and money, he managed to prevent Hutu militias from killing the refugees. In many other places where people sought refuge, they were not able to escape the slaughter.

Massacres in churches

During the Rwandan genocide, churches were no longer sanctuaries. About 4,000 men, women and children were murdered with axes, knives and machetes in the church of Ntarama near Kigali. Today the church is one of the country's many genocide memorials. Rows of skulls, human bones as well as bullet marks in the walls are a reminder of what happened there 20 years ago.

France's role

The French government maintained close ties to the Hutu regime. When the French army intervened in June, it enabled soldiers and militiamen responsible for the genocide to flee to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and take their weapons with them. They still pose a threat to Rwanda today.

Streams of refugees

During the genocide, millions of Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus fled to Tanzania, Zaire and Uganda. Two million of them went to Zaire alone. They included former members of the army and perpetrators of the genocide, who soon founded the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a militia that is still terrorizing the population in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo today.

Capture of the capital

On July 4, 1994, rebels from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) patrolled the area around the Church of the Holy Family in Kigali. By that time they had liberated most of the country and routed the perpetrators of the genocide. However, human rights activists also accused the rebels of committing crimes, for which no one has been held accountable to this day.

End of the genocide

On July 18, 1994, the RPF's leader, Major General Paul Kagame, declared that the war against the government troops was over. The rebels were in control of the capital and other important towns. Initially, they installed a provisional government. Paul Kagame eventually became Rwanda's president in the year 2000.

Lasting scars

The Rwandan genocide went on for almost three months. The victims were often slaughtered with machetes. Neighbors killed neighbors. Not even babies and elderly people were spared, and the streets were strewn with corpses and body parts. Not only the physical scars on the bodies of the survivors remind Rwandans of the genocide. There is also a deep trauma that's still palpable today.

dj/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)