Defamation campaign in Rwanda

Author: LOR

L'Osservatore Romano

The following is an unsigned editorial appearing in L'Osservatore Romano.

In Rwanda a real defamation campaign is under way against the Catholic Church in order to make her appear responsible for the genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group, massacres which devastated the country in 1994. The first public victim of this campaign is the Most Rev. Augustin Misago, Bishop of Gikongoro since 1992, who was arrested last 14 April on the road to Kigali. The Bishop has been accused of taking part in the massacre of 150,000 Tutsis in his Diocese; in particular, he is being held responsible for the killing of 30 female students who are said to have asked for his protection.

The accusation against the Bishop came from a high level, i.e., Rwandan President Pastor Bizimungu, who last 7 April, during the celebrations for the fifth anniversary of the genocide, publicly denounced the prelate for complicity.

The attacks on the Bishops and the Church have provoked reactions from various organs of world public opinion. On the ecclesiastical side, solidarity with Bishop Misago and the Rwandan Church has already been expressed by the Episcopates of Burundi, Tanzania and France, the Archbishop of Bukavu (Democratic Republic of the Congo), etc. They all expressed their concern over the massive attack, which jeopardizes the future harmony of the entire African continent.

A predictable arrest

Bishop Misago's arrest was preceded by a ruthless press campaign. Indeed, as far as the regime's newspapers were concerned, he was convicted without trial: on 12 April (before his arrest) The New Times, a pro-government paper, depicted him in a cartoon, surrounded by skulls looking at him in shock; the Bishop, armed with cartridge belts and a machete, was wearing a mitre with a Nazi swastika.

The dynamics of Misago's arrest follow a pattern. On 18 April the Archbishop of Kigali himself, Thaddee Ntihinyurwa, was accused—this time by ordinary "rescapes", survivors of the massacres—of having taken part in the genocide. Everything had been scripted: on the preceding days there was a series of articles in the newspapers -all controlled by the government—which accused the Archbishop; a celebration was prepared in memory of the genocide and the Archbishop was asked to attend; during the religious ceremony the accusers took the floor; journalists and the media were ready to immortalize the event.

The same scenario was orchestrated for the Most Rev. Andre Perraudin, a White Father and Bishop emeritus of Kabgayi. Last 4 April, at the celebration of his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination in Veyras, Switzerland, an ethnic group of Rwandan immigrants demonstrated in front of the church doors, distributing cartoons and cyclostyled handbills accusing him of being a "genocidarian". The Tutsi genocide occurred in 1994. Bishop Perraudin, who was in Rwanda for 38 years, retired to Switzerland on 15 September 1993, but that did not spare him from being held responsible. The group accuses him on the basis of a 1959 pastoral letter in which he asks, in the name of charity, that an end be put to the privileges of one ethnic group over another, suggesting social reforms and greater democracy. At the time Rwanda was still a monarchy and was governed by the Tutsi ethnic group, while Hutus, the majority of the population, were considered slaves.

Smear campaign in the pro-government media

Last 26 April there was a meeting between the Rwandan Bishops and the President of the Republic. According to Radio Rwanda's broadcast the next day, President Bizimungu wanted to make it clear that Bishop Misago had been arrested "as an individual, not as a member of the Catholic Church".

The impression, however, was just the opposite: the efforts to prosecute Bishops and missionaries are a plan to make the Catholic Church as a whole responsible for the genocide of the Tutsis.

Bishop Misago's arrest exactly five years after the massacres has to be considered the latest act in a Rwandangovernment strategy to reduce or eliminate the reconciliatory role that the Church has historically played in Rwanda's past and still plays today, by trying in every way to tarnish her image.

But the victims of the genocide include three Bishops, 123 priests and over 300 sisters. Another prelate, Bishop Fokas of Ruhengeri, disappeared at the hands of the police on his return from abroad. Nothing more is known of him. More recently, missionaries have been killed precisely because they want to foster reconciliation in Rwanda but are the inconvenient witnesses of abuses.

The smear campaign began several years ago. One of its principal organizers is Privat Rutazibwa, a former priest and director of a government news agency. He maintains that "the Catholic Church is too dependent on Rome" and that it is necessary "to create a national Rwandan church". Other information sources—such as the magazine La Nouvelle Releve have said that missionaries are no longer needed in Rwanda and that they hope for the creation of a national church. In an open letter Privat Rutazibwa has also called the missionaries "apostles of hate".

Churches as genocide memorials

Part of this project is the express wish of the authorities to convert a certain number of Catholic churches into genocide mausoleums. The obvious intent is to fink the Church with the genocide in the memory of Rwandans. The Holy See is opposed to this pretense, pointing out that the churches are places of worship and reconciliation for the whole community (Tutsis and Hutus) and cannot be monopolized as charnel-houses by part of the population. In July 1997 the government nevertheless requisitioned the church in Nyamata, with the obligation that every celebration in the shrine be conducted for the dead and only for dead Tutsis massacred in 1994.

At the roots of the conflict

In an ethnic conflict, such as the protracted on in Rwanda, truth is the first victim, especially about the accused. President Bizimungu said that Bishop Misago "never responded" to the accusations brought against him. On the contrary, from 1996 tiff today the Bishop has been interrogated, given interviews and written reports, but they have never appeared in the local or international press. On 23 April last the International Fides Service published excerpts of a report written by Bishop Misago proving his innocence. He is accused for example, of not sheltering refugees in his home on 11 April 1994 and of leaving them at the mercy of their murderers. But in fact the refugees were lodged by the director of Caritas in suitable facilities (a school near the cathedral) while Bishop Misago was absent from the Diocese. The massacre of 30 female students he is blamed for at the Kibeho school was the work of "genocidal gangs" that had infiltrated the police precisely as the Bishop was asking the authorities for reinforcements to increase the security and surveillance personnel. "Responsibility for those deaths", the Bishop says, "must be laid on those" in authority, the security forces and the murderers".

The accusations against Bishop Perraudin are even more improbable. His pastoral letter of 11 February 1959 ("of hatred", according to his accusers) is really a letter asking for justice and charity. It says: "In our Rwanda, social differences and inequalities are largely connected with racial differences, in the sense that wealth, political and even judicial power are really—to a considerable extent—in the hands of people belonging to the same race". He was pointing to the problem of social alienation experienced by the Hutu ethnic group, which comprised the majority of the population. He added that "this state of affairs is the legacy of a past which we should not judge"; at the same time he asked that "all the inhabitants and all legitimate social groups" be guaranteed "the same fundamental rights". Clearly, the political propaganda against the Bishop and missionaries is trying to blame the Church for the "politicization of the Hutus" (about 85 per cent of the population), which is supposed to have led to the collapse of the Tutsi monarchy (about 12 per cent) at the time of independence, to their exclusion from power until 1994 and to the genocide.

An unexplored side of the issue: the double genocide

At the moment the population's attention is focused on the 1994 genocide. But in fact it must be continually made clear that there was a double genocide in Rwanda: the genocide of the Tutsis (and some moderate Hutus), perpetrated after 6 April 1994 and claiming over 500,000 victims, and that of the Hutus, lasting from October 1990 until the Rwandan Patriotic Front (Tutsis) seized power in July 1994. This genocide of the Hutus was later continued in the forests of Zaire, where fleeing Hutus were massacred for months, without any protection from the international community. The Hutu victims number about one million. Both genocides were horrible and both must be remembered to avoid the risk of one-sided propaganda.

One-sided justice

Up to now only those guilty of one of the two genocides are being sought. The courts have already tried over 300 people for genocide, condemning 116 to death (including two priests). Many sentences and the administration of justice in general have been criticized by international organizations such as Amnesty International for the scant guarantees granted the accused and for the theatrical executions. The shadow of political trials, for which certain European regimes were sadly known, is looming again on the horizon, but this time on African soil. Meanwhile, Rwanda's prisons are bursting with inmates: their number has risen to over 130,000. Many prisoners are dying from hardship or overcrowding.

This one-sided way of acting threatens to aggravate not only the division but also the destruction of the country. If ethnic polarization continues to grow, after decades of ideological polarization, not only Rwanda but all Africa risks being destroyed. Or better put: Africans. Because the continent, its wealth and its raw materials are being exploited by others, while the African peoples waste time and lives in warring on each other with weapons furnished by powers and individuals whose interests are far removed from those of Africa.

Taken from:
LOsservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 June 1999, page 8

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