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Rwanda: Remembrance, Repentance, Reconciliation

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, one of the most horrific events in history’s bloodiest century. Over the course of a mere hundred days or so, Hutus in that nation killed up to a million Tutsis as the world stood by. Sadly, some of the perpetrators were Catholics. For reconciliation to continue in Rwanda, it helps to acknowledge this uncomfortable fact. We must also not forget, however, that faith was not the cause of the genocide. It was, instead, the inspiration for many of the acts of human decency, such as they were, in the Rwandan inferno.

There are several lessons here.

First, proportionally speaking, the annihilation of the Tutsis is on par with the twentieth century’s most notorious genocides, the Shoah and the Armenian genocide. During the Second World War, Nazi Germany murdered two-thirds of European Jews; and between 1915 and 1923 the nationalist Young Turks exterminated three-quarters of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. Between April and July 1994, Hutus killed 70 percent of Rwanda’s Tutsis.

Though they only used primitive weapons like clubs and machetes, the Hutus were much more efficient than either the Third Reich or the regime of the Three Pashas: whereas it took the latter two groups several years to wipe out most European Jews and Ottoman Armenians, a mere three months were enough for the Hutus to kill a similar proportion of Tutsis.

Perhaps the most disturbing lesson from the Rwandan hell regarding human nature is that sophisticated means of genocide like Zyklon B or mass shootings in places like Babi Yar are not necessary to commit mass murder; hearts aflame with hatred suffice.

For Catholics, the Rwandan genocide is especially troubling. According to the country’s 2002 census, nearly three in five Rwandans identified as Catholic. What’s more, not only ordinary lay faithful but also priests were among the Hutus who took part in the mayhem.

This has found its way into anti-Catholic polemics. In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, the late Christopher Hitchens presented the Rwandan genocide as just one of many examples of the evils of religion. But that is not the whole truth.

As in other cases of misbehavior by fellow Catholics, we should acknowledge the tragic facts and not minimize them. In 2017, Pope Francis apologized for the role of priests in the genocide. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, himself a Roman Catholic Tutsi, called this a “new chapter” in the healing process.

Read more at The Catholic Thing

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