The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994, more than two decades ago. Some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered by Hutu extremists. Like all genocides, this one was long in the making, and there is clear evidence that it was planned, rather than a spontaneous outbreak of ethnic violence. Many sought refuge in Catholic churches and in mission compounds, where, tragically, they found no safe haven.

Moreover, if anyone looked to the Catholic hierarchy for leadership at the time, they found little support. Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence that some priests, nuns and bishops were either among the perpetrators of the genocide, or its silent supporters and enablers. In other words, there were Catholic clergy and religious for whom tribal animosity was more important than the universal law of Christian charity.

Recently, the Catholic bishops of Rwanda produced a statement to be read out in all Catholic churches in the country. It said: “We apologise for all the wrongs the Church committed. We apologise on behalf of all Christians for all forms of wrongs we committed. We regret that Church members violated [their] oath of allegiance to God’s commandments.” Yet this sincerely meant apology has been rejected by the Rwandan government as insufficient, and was itself undermined by the fact that some priests refused to read it out. Clearly, two decades on, the wounds left by the genocide have not been healed.

Given the scale of the crime, it is not hard to see why. But it is a matter of justice for the Church to act now, not just to try to close a sad chapter in its history, but also to avoid the danger of creating a poisoned legacy which may damage her far beyond the borders of Rwanda.

The Rwandan government has demanded that the Vatican itself should apologise for the Church’s role in the genocide, and does not accept the Church’s claim that, while individual Catholics were guilty of genocide, the Church as an institution was not. The Church needs to confront this demand from the Rwandan government.

While it is false to think that the Rwandan genocide was planned anywhere but in Rwanda itself, the Church has had a huge influence on Rwandan society, and the historic and festering divisions between Hutu and Tutsi may well owe something to the Church’s influence.

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