This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, one of the most horrific events in history’s bloodiest century. Over the course of a mere hundred days or so, Hutus in that nation killed up to a million Tutsis as the world stood by. Sadly, some of the perpetrators were Catholics. For reconciliation to continue in Rwanda, it helps to acknowledge this uncomfortable fact. We must also not forget, however, that faith was not the cause of the genocide. It was, instead, the inspiration for many of the acts of human decency, such as they were, in the Rwandan inferno.
There are several lessons here.
First, proportionally speaking, the annihilation of the Tutsis is on par with the twentieth century’s most notorious genocides, the Shoah and the Armenian genocide. During the Second World War, Nazi Germany murdered two-thirds of European Jews; and between 1915 and 1923 the nationalist Young Turks exterminated three-quarters of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Between April and July 1994, Hutus killed 70 percent of Rwanda’s Tutsis.
Though they only used primitive weapons like clubs and machetes, the Hutus were much more efficient than either the Third Reich or the regime of the Three Pashas: whereas it took the latter two groups several years to wipe out most European Jews and Ottoman Armenians, a mere three months were enough for the Hutus to kill a similar proportion of Tutsis.
Perhaps the most disturbing lesson from the Rwandan hell regarding human nature is that sophisticated means of genocide like Zyklon B or mass shootings in places like Babi Yar are not necessary to commit mass murder; hearts aflame with hatred suffice.
For Catholics, the Rwandan genocide is especially troubling. According to the country’s 2002 census, nearly three in five Rwandans identified as Catholic. What’s more, not only ordinary lay faithful but also priests were among the Hutus who took part in the mayhem.
This has found its way into anti-Catholic polemics. In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, the late Christopher Hitchens presented the Rwandan genocide as just one of many examples of the evils of religion. But that is not the whole truth.
As in other cases of misbehavior by fellow Catholics, we should acknowledge the tragic facts and not minimize them. In 2017, Pope Francis apologized for the role of priests in the genocide. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, himself a Roman Catholic Tutsi, called this a “new chapter” in the healing process.
In Catholicism, the acknowledgment of one’s sinfulness, apology, and penance not only brings the individual sinner to God but can have public consequences as well. In 1965, for example, the Catholic bishops of Poland sent a letter to their German counterparts forgiving the German nation for the brutal Nazi occupation of their country and themselves asking for forgiveness. Just two decades after the Germans had killed almost six million Polish citizens, many Poles thought the notion their bishops should apologize for anything to the Germans absurd and even obscene.
Yet the bishops argued that even if one Pole ever harmed a German that would warrant the apology. The bishops’ letter paved the way for Polish-German reconciliation; shortly after, West German chancellor Willy Brandt formally recognized the postwar Polish-German border.
Among the promoters of the letter was Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Krakow who. as Pope St. John Paul II, knew the value of public repentance – not self-abasement, but a genuine expression of regret – for past wrongs.
Historical honesty, however, requires that we also remember other things. For instance, the Rwandan genocide was not motivated primarily by religious passions; this was not like the massacres during the Thirty Years War. Rather, it was motivated by the vile tribalism incubating in our fallen human nature that often awakes during times of conflict.
During World War II, Croatia’s Ustashe regime murdered 400,000 people, mostly Serbs, but also Jews and gypsies. The Ustashe often appealed to popular Catholicism to incite hatred of the Orthodox Serbs; however, their genocidal tactics clearly contradicted the universalist message of the Gospels. Like the Ustashe, the Hutus sometimes appealed to religious sentiments for reasons of political convenience, but priests complicit in the killings acted contrary to the Catholic faith.
As Rwanda descended into civil war, many Tutsi Catholics died as well; the Hutus did not care about a denomination but about ethnic animosity. And whereas some priests were complicit in the genocide, others truly lived out the Gospel in Rwanda, such as the Hutu priest Célestin Hakizimana, now a bishop, who hid about 2,000 Tutsis in Kigali and bribed Hutu officials to not murder those under his care.
The Rwandan genocide was also officially condemned by the Catholic Church at the highest level. Pope St. John Paul II, who took a great interest in Africa, was the first world leader to label the killings as genocide and repeatedly condemned them, starting just two days after they had begun. This stands in sharp contrast with the United Nations and Western states, which had the military capabilities to save hundreds of thousands, yet did nothing.
“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” Shakespeare famously wrote. Some of the Hutu mass murderers of 1994 did not so much cite Scripture as appeal to vicious tribalism cloaked in cultural Catholicism. Yet the fact that Church people were among the perpetrators of the genocide remains a grave scandal. The witness of recent popes and Bishop Célestin Hakizimana, however, shows that, even after historic outrages, the unadulterated substance of the faith can also play a key role in the healing of troubled societies and the restoration of human solidarity.