Rwanda, The Catholic Church in

views updated


A densely populated, landlocked nation located near the equator in east central africa, the Rwandese Republic

is bordered on the west by Lake Kivu and the democratic republic of congo, on the north by uganda, on the east by tanzania and on the south by burundi. The Nile-Congo divide runs through Rwanda, which is primarily an agricultural country of uplands, the volcanic Birunga mountains falling toward the east. Natural resources include gold, tin ore, tungsten and methane, while food crops consist of coffee, tea, pyrethrum, bananas, beans and potatoes.

A Tutsi kingdom was established in Rwanda in the 16th century, falling under military control of German East Africa from 18991916. The region was administered by Belgium as part of Rwanda-Urundi until independence was gained in 1962. In 1959 the Hutu majority overthrew the Nilotic Tutsi feudal hierarchy and drove 150,000 Tutsi out of the country. Civil war erupted in 1990, begun by exiled Tutsi, and in 1994 escalated to an ethnic war wherein 800,000 people were killed. The country's first national elections were held in 1999, despite the continued threat of violence from Hutu extremists and the government's support of rebel forces in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of the poorest nations in Africa, Rwanda also suffers from overpopulation, famine, diseases such as HIV/AIDS and drought. The life expectancy of an average Rwandan was 39.4 years in 2000.

History. The region was originally ruled by Tutsi kings who reigned over Bahutu farmers, its boundaries set in the 19th century. Germany incorporated it into German East Africa in 1890, and in 1900 White Fathers first arrived at Save. Following World War I, Belgium took control under a League of Nations mandate that was later transferred to the United Nations. The first Rwandan priests were ordained in 1917; in addition to native clergy, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, French and Swiss secular clergy began to assist European men's and women's congregations in missionary work, while German, Belgian and English Protestants also increased their evangelization efforts. In the 1930s and 1940s numerous conversions took place, primarily among the Tutsi; there were 300,000 Christians in 1940 and 358,000 in 1950. The Vicaraite

Apostolic of Kivu (created in 1912) split into the vicariates of Burundi and Rwanda in 1922, and 30 years later Rwanda was divided into the vicariates of Nyundo and Kabgayi. When the hierarchy was established in 1959, Kabgayi became an archdiocese and the metropolitan see for Rwanda. The University of Butare opened in 1963 under Canadian Dominicans.

During World War II Church missions suffered from political troubles, made worse by a famine. During the 1950s the region also became involved in tribal conflicts between the Hutu majority (90 percent of the population) and the Tutsi elite. When civil war broke out in 1959, the Church was in the position of seeming to have to choose between Tutsi and Hutu. On July 1, 1962 Rwanda became independent, but the violence continued. In April of 1964 the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi were killed in a plane crash that sparked a violent ethnic war, as Hutu guerillas murdered thousands of Tutsi, many of whom were Catholics. Among the victims were three bishops and a quarter of Rwanda's Catholic clergy; thousands more fled to neighboring African nations to await the outcome.

The election of Juvénal Habyarimana as president in 1973 brought stability to the region, and efforts were made to stabilize the economy under Habyarimana's one-party government. Tutsi rebels based in Uganda invaded the country in 1991, and following mediation a new constitution was adopted in June of 1991, and a coalition government formed. Habyarimana's assassination in 1994 and the subsequent installation of a new government precipitated another wave of violence by Hutus, during which thousands of Tutsi were massacred and reprisals begun, among them the murder of 17 ethnic Hutu students at a Catholic school near Butare in 1997. Many Hutus who fled the country in the wake of this violence had returned to live in government camps by 1997, although such refugee groups sometimes became the targets of Hutu extremists whose forced marches resulted in many deaths. A Tutsi government remained in place through 2000.

In January of 1997 the UN convened a war crimes tribunal for Rwanda, during which approximately 100,000, including many government officials and members of the clergyparticularly the White Fatherswere accused, jailed and put on trial. Pope John Paul II fully supported the punishment of all Church members who, in contravention of the Gospel, engaged in genocide during the struggle, but the Vatican donated $50,000 toward legal costs incurred by priests, religious and other Catholics as a means of ensuring fair trials. Unfortunately, questions regarding the impartiality of the legal system continued to be raised, as elimination of all Hutu clergy was suspected of being in the interest of the governing Tutsi. Following the 1999 arrest of Bishop Augustin Misago on genocide charges, the Vatican publicly denounced the Rwandan government for what it called a "defamatory campaign against the Catholic Church." While Misago was released in June of 2000 and avoided the firing squads that had claimed 116 others found guilty of crimes against humanity by 1998, charges against other priests continued to be leveled through 2000.

Into the 21st Century. By 2000 Rwanda had 132 parishes tended by 284 diocesan and 131 religious priests. Other religious included approximately 165 brothers and 1,100 sisters, some of whom ran the country's 1,032 primary and 102 secondary Catholic schools and tended to the humanitarian and medical needs of a nation of refugees from war or poverty. Although some missionary schools were nationalized in the mid-20th century, programs of religious or moral education continued to be offered. With government stability increasing under a military president, the advances in the economy shown in 2000 boded well for all Rwandans, who had been severely impoverished during years of civil war. Church leaders remained vocal in their objections to the distribution of abortifacients among Rwandese women by the UN and Red Cross begun in 1996. Tensions between the Church and the Rwandan government continued to exist, resulting from the government's plan to turn ten churches into genocide memorials. Church leaders expressed concern that such a use might cause identification of Catholicism with the minority Tutsi elite, thus sparking further ethnic violence.

Bibliography: j. r. clÉment, Essai de bibliographie du Ru (Gayi 1961). Ruanda-Burundi (Bujumbura 1963). Bilan du anda-Urundi (Usumbura 1959). l. de lagger, Ruanda (Kabbayi 1967). Monde (1964) 2:767771. Annuario Pontificio (1965) 204.

[j. perraudin/eds.]