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Rwanda's Contested Catholic History

April 7, 2014

By Dr. Jay Carney, Assistant Professor of Theology at The Catholic University of America, and author of Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Policies and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era, available on Oxford Scholarship Online.

Rwanda Before the Genocide

As Rwanda and the world rapidly approach the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide, one can anticipate a deluge of commemorations and journalistic commentaries emerging from inside and outside Rwanda. Inside Rwanda, the annual April events have become highly politicized, and one should expect no less in April 2014. In Western countries, the credo of "never again" is often invoked every April, overlooking the irony that Vice President Al Gore himself utilized similar language at the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in April 1994 as the Rwanda genocide unfolded a continent away. One should not be too critical, of course. The Holocaust Museum has made millions of Americans aware of the deeper human horror of the Shoah. Likewise, the attention surrounding the Rwanda genocide has made millions of outsiders aware of what happened in this small Central African nation and increased international concern with social violence in other African countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic. In turn, one hopes that the attention surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide will spark deeper interest in examining its many-threaded roots.

This is where I see Rwanda Before the Genocide offering a potential contribution. It is not so much that this book offers the definitive account of Rwanda before the genocide. As an outsider I can make no such claim, and if nothing else the post-genocide debates and polemics have revealed the fundamental illusion that such a "definitive account" can be found. What the book aims to do, however, is to cast a more searching light on one of the key institutions that shaped Rwanda throughout the 20th century – the Roman Catholic Church. Not only did a majority of Rwandans belong to the Catholic Church at the time of the genocide, but church leaders and institutions exercised disproportionate influence throughout Rwanda's colonial and post-colonial history. Colonial missionaries like Léon Classe were confidants of kings; Rwanda's first president Gregoire Kayibanda was a former Catholic seminarian; later leaders like Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva had a direct phone line to President Juvenal Habyarimana's office. In turn, churches themselves became some of the largest killing grounds in Rwanda during the genocide. At the same time, human rights activists like Fr. André Sibomana took their inspiration from the Christian gospel, and the churches have taken a lead role in reconciling Rwandan society over the past 20 years.

Starting with the 19th-century European roots of the nation's first missionaries, Rwanda Before the Genocide traces the Catholic story in Rwanda. In particular, I focus on the late colonial period between 1952 and 1962 when the Hutu-Tutsi question emerged as a publicly divisive issue. Figures like the Swiss Archbishop André Perraudin and Aloys Bigirumwami, Rwanda's first indigenous bishop, emerge in all of their complexity. One sees that the questions dividing Rwandan society in the late colonial period were also dividing the church – in many ways the church led society in this regard. And in the aftermath of ethnic massacres in 1959-62, 1963-64, and 1973, church leaders found themselves speaking out against the violence even as they disagreed vehemently on its underlying causes. Patterns of political and theological language emerged in this era that would have a profound effect on postcolonial discourse all the way up to the 1994 genocide.

The book should appeal to North Atlantic scholars and other interested members of the reading public who would like to explore Rwanda's political and religious history in more scholarly depth. At the same time, I sincerely hope that many Rwandans will read this book, especially as it draws on some previously unknown archival sources that cast new light on old polemics surrounding church, state and ethnic questions. In this regard I am especially happy that Oxford Scholarship Online makes this work available to institutions throughout Africa that could not otherwise access the book in print. Above all, I hope that this OSO digital book ends up in the hands of those who can most positively shape Rwanda's future by learning from its past.

Discover more: the 'Contested Categories: A Brief History of "Hutu" and "Tutsi"' in Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era is now free and available to read until May 31st. J.J. Carney has also written an article on the OUPblog, entitled 'A brief history of ethnic violence in Rwanda and Africa’s Great Lakes region'