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Our first field trip in Rwanda was a short drive to the villages of Ntarama and Nyamata, less than an hour outside of Kigali. There we visited two closely related massacre sites, which today stand as national memorials to the genocide.

Genocide memorial at Ntarama

Ntarama (pronounced Nah-RAH-mah) was our first stop. If you did not know what to look for, you would probably drive past the church in Ntarama without realizing it. A humble brick church on a hill, lacking the majestic, towering spires of European cathedrals, exhibiting only a single, basic cross, the tranquility and simple beauty of the facility masks the evil that occurred there. Early in the genocide, approximately 5,000 predominantly Tutsi people—adults, children, and babies—were massacred in a period of hours at this church.

Ntarama and Nyamata exemplify the consequences of the Church’s role in promoting Hutu Power, of its abandonment, poor leadership, and poor resolve.

In previous genocide “practice runs,” violent attacks on Tutsis by their Hutu neighbors, Tutsis generally found refuge in churches, and killers respected the traditional sanctity of churches, or at least avoided killing on site. In 1994, however, not even churches were off-limits. At Ntarama, the Italian priest presiding over the church fled with other foreign nationals days after the genocide began, and has never been held accountable for his actions. As I stood under an aluminum canopy listening to the rain hitting the roof, looking out over the site, I could not help but think of how the complacency and abandonment of the Church allowed this to happen.

One of the most influential institutions in the world, the Catholic Church established itself as a powerful force in Rwanda shortly after the arrival of Europeans, and flourished in certain Rwandan provinces through the auspices of the French Diocese. As in other historical contexts, the Church, which had supported the Hutu-dominated power structure after the 1959 revolution, effectively found itself on the wrong side of history; in this case, the perpetrator-side of the Rwandan genocide. For years, Rwandan priests and bishops actively promoted Hutu Power ideology in an attempt to better control the Rwandan masses, extend Francophone influence in Rwanda, and ensure that the traditional power and wealth of the Tutsis did not threaten the newly established power and authority of the Church.

As we learned, some of the deadliest massacre sites were Catholic Churches, most notably Ntarama and Nyamata, and partly because their priests abandoned their own parishioners or actively enabled genocidaires.

Getting a visceral sense of this at the two memorial sites stunned me, as someone who grew up Catholic and attended Catholic schools. In all of Christianity, the crucifixion of Jesus—symbolized by the cross—is believed to be the saving grace for all of humanity. At Ntarama, people literally fled to the cross on Ntarama’s church, in order to find sanctuary from bloodthirsty murderers. Upon arrival, these terrified people were failed, not just by the priest, but also by the Church itself for having been complacent and active in the hateful, ethnic ideology perpetrated in the previous decades. Thus, those who fled to the Cross seeking salvation were met instead with horrific deaths. The killers slaughtered with clubs and machetes, and we were even shown the wall against which babies were bashed.

I cannot imagine what it would be like for these villagers to know, in their greatest moment of need, that the priests had delivered their sheep to the wolves.

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Tucked away behind trees and farm fields twenty minutes from Ntarama, the church at Nyamata stands slightly taller and more majestic than its Ntarama counterpart. Nearby is a school and nuns stroll the dirt paths outside, where an elementary school is in session. Inside the sanctuary, however, nuns no longer pray. Instead, piles of victims’ clothing lie piled in the aisles, personal belongings line the altar. The wooden pews are broken, bricks are missing from the wall, and a ragged statue of the Virgin Mary broods behind what once served as an altar. Chipped crosses and crucifixes still adorn the walls, some with tiny blood spatters still on them. Downstairs, a sample of the remains of victims are preserved as evidence of what happened, but thousands more are buried in mass graves just outside the church.

About 50,000 people were slaughtered on this small campus, one of the most brutal sites of the genocide. As at Ntarama, the shepherds abandoned their flock, and in doing so, failed both to fulfill their duty as priests to stand with their congregation, and to protect the people who had fled to them.

Against one side of the church, though, is one particular memorial—marked in remembrance of Antonia Locatelli. An Italian nun, Locatelli was one of the few Catholic authorities who, in the years leading up to the genocide, not only refused to endorse Hutu Power ideology, but actively protected and saved people from killers. She even reached out to UN authorities in 1992, warning that a genocide was being planned. But shortly thereafter she was killed, and with her any chance for survival of the Tutsis of Nyamata was extinguished.

In one sense, Ntarama and Nyamata emblematize the violence that was widespread throughout the country, but in another, they exemplify the consequences of the Church’s role in promoting Hutu Power, of its abandonment, poor leadership, and poor resolve. These were holy places converted to killing grounds. I did not fully understand what this failure meant until I stood in the presence of the clothes of the dead, completely overwhelmed by the smell that comes with rotting clothes and decaying bodies, even after 24 years. At that moment I began to grasp the gross failure and cowardice of not just the priests of Ntarama and Nyamata, but of priests throughout Rwanda, and began to wonder about the role of the Church as an institution.

Through these experiences, it became clear to me that the non-Magisterium Catholic clergy utterly failed Rwandan society during the genocide; this is undeniable. The next variable in the equation, then, is examining the responses, actions, and responsibilities of the Magisterium—that is, the Pope and bishops. At the helm of the Rwandan Church was Vincent Nsengiyumva, archbishop of Kigali from 1976 until his death in 1994 at the hands of the RPF, the military force that ended the genocide. A close friend of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, Nsengiyumva was an integral cabinet member in the Hutu Power government for 14 years and was forced out by the Vatican not because of his hateful policies and promotion, but because of a general ban ordered by the Vatican in 1990, effectively prohibiting direct clergy involvement in political parties.

Before the genocide, Nsengiyuma was hated by Tutsis for his anti-Tutsi teachings and rhetoric. He has since been directly implicated in the genocide. And yet, upon his death at the hands of the RPF, Pope John Paul II issued a statement “deploring the cruel death of Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva of Kigali…” and those genocidaire clergy members he had been killed with. Nowhere does the statement mention Nsengiyuma’s character, actions, or involvement, and John Paul II never addressed, let alone acknowledged, the role of Nsengiyuma in the Rwandan genocide.

Regarding the genocide as a whole in subsequent years, the response from the Papal Throne has been laughable, at best. In 1994, as the genocide was occurring, Pope John Paul II lamented “the people and the Church in Rwanda suffering at the moment from a terrible tragedy,” blatantly ignoring the fact that the Church was actively participating in the extermination of Tutsis, the vast majority of whom were devout Catholics. This does not surprise me, as I have been educated in the historical failures of the Church during my K-12 Catholic education, but the blatant ignorance of glaring fact by someone considered to be one of the best popes of the 20th century is pathetic. Worse, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a non-apology, in which he declared a day of mourning for Rwanda, only to continue to state that, “[He] ardently [hopes] that all Rwandans, guided by the civil and religious Authorities, will more generously and effectively engage in national reconciliation to build a new country, in truth and justice, in fraternal unity and peace,” implying that it is the Rwandans who have more work to do in reconciliation, not the Church. Only in 2017 did Pope Francis finally issue a formal apology, acknowledging the direct role of the Church in the exterminations.

As someone raised in the Catholic tradition but not practicing or devout, it is difficult to process the memories and images found at churches in Rwanda. On one hand, I am not at all surprised by the failure, but on the other, Catholicism is still part of my identity, and this was my first experience seeing the gross misconduct and murderous actions of the Church up close. The most difficult aspect is knowing that the Church is supposed to promote the virtues of “faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these being love,” when in reality, it abandoned its people, sat complacently with genocide, and actively perpetrated genocide against fellow human beings, let alone fellow Catholics. As in the past, the Church found itself on the perpetrator-side of genocide, through both its actions as an institution and its participation in genocidal acts and ideology. It is no surprise that many Rwandans have abandoned the Church for Protestant denominations, or left religion altogether. The Church has serious reconciliation efforts of its own to undertake.

Ontario Duley

Ontario Duley

Junior, Political Science

Lessons that Will Stay with Me

Professor Nancy D. Wadsworth
I hope to continue refining the class in coming years, but I know that the profundity and sense of emotional community that marked the first time with this remarkable group of students will be forever impressed on my memory.

Tuyisenge Narcisse

Austin Clapp
In Narcisse’s story, this truly seems to be what has caused him the most suffering: the feeling of having everything that was once his being ripped away with no ability to control the outcome.

The Catholic Problem in the Rwandan Genocide

Tom Oexeman
As we learned, some of the deadliest massacre sites were Catholic Churches, most notably Ntarama and Nyamata, and partly because their priests abandoned their own parishioners or actively enabled genocidaires.

When People Resist Genocide

Lauren Yehle
With so much emphasis on survivors, it’s difficult to understand what inspired some Hutus to murder and others to resist.

Yahrzeit*

Anne Pogoriler

There were many echoes of the Holocaust in our tour of Rwanda’s more recent trauma.