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Thursday, April 15, 1999 Published at 22:28 GMT 23:28 UK

World: Africa

Vatican protests genocide arrest

Genocide: Bodies litter the ground in 1994

The Vatican has described the arrest of a bishop accused of playing a role in Rwanda's 1994 genocide as an act of "extreme gravity".

Bishop Augustin Misago, accused of the disappearance of 30 young girls, is the most senior clergyman to be arrested in relation to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

But in a strongly worded statement following the arrest, the Vatican said it hoped that the bishop's innocence would be rapidly proved.

"The arrest is an act of extreme gravity that not only wounds the church in Rwanda but the entire Catholic church," said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

"Relations between the Republic of Rwanda and the Holy See are profoundly troubled by this," he added.

The bishop, leader of the southern diocese of Gikongoro, was taken into custody while attending a church meeting in Kigali on Wednesday.

He is being held until the authorities decide whether to try him in Kigali or in his diocese.

Despite bitter accusations against the bishop over the last five years, the Roman Catholic Church has never attempted to move him from his post in Rwanda.

Survivors' accusations

The Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu and Tutsi survivors of the massacres in Gikongoro Prefecture said Misago refused shelter to Tutsis trying to escape death from Hutu mobs.

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The 56-year-old bishop faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Survivors allege that the girls who disappeared had sought his protection during the 100 days of bloodshed in which as many as one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in inter-tribal conflict led by Hutu militias.

More than 150,000 people are estimated to have been slaughtered in the diocese of Gikongoro alone.

President Bizimungu said that even if Bishop Misago was found innocent, Rwanda would ask the Vatican to remove him because the Catholic faithful no longer had confidence in him.

Death sentence

The church in Rwanda has been strongly criticised for its attitude both before and during the genocide.

Several priests and nuns are among tens of thousands awaiting trial for actively participating in the killings organised by the Hutu majority.

Human rights groups also accuse the Catholic Church of hiding other alleged murderers in Europe.

In 1998, two priests became the first members of the clergy to be sentenced to death for organizing the killing of 2,000 Tutsis by bulldozing the church in which they had sought shelter.

In 1996, the Pope said that those who took part in the genocide must bear the consequences of their actions, but insisted that the Catholic Church as a whole could not be held accountable.

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