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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK
Rwanda's religious reflections
By Robert Walker
BBC, Kigali

5,000 Tutsis were massacred at Ntarama Church, today it is preserved as a memorial site
Many Rwandan Catholics believe the Church let them down
Twenty-year-old Zafran Mukantwari was the only person in her family who survived the genocide.

I meet her sitting outside Kigali's Al-Aqsa mosque.

She is tightly veiled and speaks softly as she tells me what happened 10 years ago.

Her family were Catholic, she says. Those who killed them worshipped at the same church.

At the age of 10, Zafran found herself alone and at first she continued going to church.

She thought she could find support there. But then she began to question her faith.

"When I realised that the people I was praying with killed my parents, I preferred to become a Muslim because Muslims did not kill."

No protection

Before the genocide more than 60% of Rwandans were Catholic.

And when the killings started, tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to churches for sanctuary. But they found little protection there.

Some members of the Church failed in their mission, they contradicted what they stood for
Father Antoine Kambanda
Director of the charity, Caritas
Churches became sites of slaughter, carried out even at the altar.

On the opposite side of Kigali from Al Aqsa mosque, is the church of Sainte Famille. As dawn mass is celebrated, the sound of hymns carries outside and floats across the waking city.

During the genocide, hundreds of Tutsis crammed inside here trying to escape the horrors unfolding outside. But Hutu militias came repeatedly with lists of those to be killed.

The priest in charge of the church, Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, is blamed for colluding with the killers.

Discarding his priest's cassock, witnesses say he took to wearing a flack jacket and carrying a pistol.

"Some members of the Church failed in their mission, they contradicted what they stood for," says Father Antoine Kambanda, director of the charity, Caritas, in Kigali.

He acknowledges that while some priests and nuns risked their lives trying to stop the slaughter, others were implicated in the killings.

"We are sorry for what took place, sorry for the members of the Church that did crimes, sorry for the victims who lost their lives.

"But the Pope says the members who went against their mission are to answer for it. The Church cannot answer for them."

Turning to Islam

This position that blame lies with individuals, rather the Church as an institution, is still highly controversial, as Rwanda marks the tenth anniversary of the genocide.

Muslims pray at Nyamirambo Mosque in Kigali
Many Rwandans have converted to Islam
The Church hierarchy in Rwanda supported the previous regime of President Juvenal Habyarimana. And they failed to denounce ethnic hatred then being disseminated.

Some survivors like Zafran have since left the Catholic Church, unable to reconcile the Church's teaching with the actions of its most senior members during the genocide.

Sheikh Saleh Habimana, the Mufti of Rwanda, is the representative of the country's Muslims.

He says many turned to Islam because Muslims were seen to have acted differently.

"The roofs of Muslim houses were full of non-Muslims hiding. Muslims are not answerable before God for the blood of innocent people."

But after the genocide, converting to Islam was also seen by some as the safest option.

"For the Hutus, everyone was saying as long as I look like a Muslim everybody will accept that I don't have blood on my hands.

"And for the Tutsis they said let me embrace Islam because Muslims in genocide never die. So one was looking for purification, the other was looking for protection."

Finding comfort

It was not only Islam that disillusioned Catholics turned to after the genocide. Evangelical churches have also flooded into the country in the past 10 years, and found many new recruits.

We thought God had left us and with the Pentecostal church we were comforted
Sylvie Isimbi
Sylvie Isimbi was hiding in a Catholic school with her father and other Tutsis during the genocide.

When the militias finally broke in, her father was shot.

Sylvia then watched friends and neighbours raped and murdered. Afterwards she turned to one of the new Pentecostal churches for support.

"We were Catholic before. But we had lost confidence in human beings.

We thought God had left us. And with the Pentecostal church we were comforted. We were able to cope with the situation."


But evangelical churches have come under fire for the methods they use to recruit their new followers. Father Antoine Kambanda says they have tried to lure converts when they are at their most vulnerable, spiritually and materially.

"People are very fragile now. Many are traumatised by the genocide. So they use cheap solutions to attract them."

Father Kambanda believes some of those who left are now returning to Catholicism.

"Often they are disillusioned and they come back. The Catholic Church remains with the biggest number of members."

But today the Church is attempting to maintain this position against the growth of both Islam and other Christian religions.

And 10 years on, it is still under pressure to accept greater responsibility for the role of its own members during the genocide.

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