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Twenty Years After Genocide, Church Helps Rwanda Heal

Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID

Catholic News Agency - published on 04/09/14

Participants in the reconciliation program say that their neighbors who have chosen not to seek or grant forgiveness still live in anger and bitterness. Some say they have been approached by other people who see the peace they have achieved in their lives and want to know how to attain it for themselves as well.

This reconciliation model, instituted largely through the Catholic Church, is now being examined as a possible template for other conflicts, and peacebuilding efforts are now taking place on a regional level, seeking to promote a culture of peace across borders.

The Church and the Genocide

Members of the Church were not exempt from the hatred and violence that enveloped the small African country in the spring of 1994; clergy members were included in the ranks of both perpetrators and victims. In some cases, Hutu priests, bishops and religious helped to hide and protect Tutsis. In other cases, they took up arms against them, ushering them into church buildings with false promises of security and then trapping and betraying them, facilitating their massacre.

However, survivor Gaspard Mukwiye, who was 19 years old at the time of the genocide, warns against placing blame on the Church as a whole.

“It’s not good to generalize,” he emphasized, noting that the killing was not done in the Church’s name, even though some priests and bishops were involved.

“I don’t blame the Church as an institution,” he said. “I blame people individually.”

In the past two decades, the Catholic Church has been a major factor in rebuilding the country.

Deogratias Nzabonimpa, director of administration and finance for the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission of Rwanda, explained that “the churches have played a big role” in promoting healing and forgiveness among the people.

A strongly religious country, nearly 100 percent of Rwandans attend religious services weekly. The majority of the country – roughly 57 percent – is Catholic, and another 37 percent identify as Protestant or Seventh-Day Adventist. A devotion to the Divine Mercy of Jesus is widespread, and the image of Divine Mercy is displayed prominently in many churches, office buildings and homes. Many Rwandans cite their faith as a reason to pursue reconciliation and forgiveness after the genocide.

In addition, it was the Catholic Church that suggested the revival of Gacacacourt system after the genocide. These communal courts had been an element of traditional Rwandan culture, but the Church suggested transforming them to help process the tens of thousands of criminal cases that arose following the genocide.

With the nation’s justice system heavily overburdened, it would have taken more than a century for the cases to be heard in the conventional court system. The Gacaca courts utilized public trials in the community with well-respected elders serving as judges. They helped to facilitate justice for both victims and perpetrators in the wake of the violence.

Cooperation Bears Fruit

Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has played a critical role in helping with peacebuilding efforts in the country. Following the genocide, the organization worked closely with the local Church and government to implement reconciliation programs and structures – many at the parish level – and train some 40,000 leaders in conflict resolution and peace efforts.

Present in the country for more than 50 years, Catholic Relief Services has worked in recent years to focus on overall quality of life improvement. At the community level, the agency teaches bio-intensive agricultural techniques to help rural Rwandans improve their production, diversify income and fight malnutrition.
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