Pope Acknowledges Genocide

RNS/Reuters reports that Pope Francis acknowledged the “sins and failings of the Church” during Rwanda‘s 1994 genocide (here). The official Vatican announcement said: “(The pope) implored anew God’s forgiveness for the sins and failings of the Church and its members, among whom priests, and religious men and women who succumbed to hatred and violence.” The Rwandan government was less than pleased with the pope’s apology, saying “Today, genocide denial and trivialization continue to flourish in certain groups within the Church and genocide suspects have been shielded from justice within Catholic institutions.”

The article is short of facts about what the Church did during the genocide. Timothy Longman is a leading expert. I cite his 2001 article “Church Politics and the Genocide in Rwanda.” He summarizes the genocide in which the ruling Hutu slaughtered the Tutsi:

For three months in 1994, the Christian churches of Rwanda served as the country’s killing fields. When ethnic and political violence ignited in the country following the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana in a mysterious plane crash on April 6, thousands of members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group sought refuge in Catholic and Protestant parishes. But death squads surrounded the churches and systematically slaughtered the people within tossing grenades through church windows, firing into the crowds with rifles, then finishing off the survivors with machetes, pruning hooks, and knives. One human rights group asserts that, ‘more Rwandese citizens died in churches and parishes than anywhere else.’

Longman conflates Catholic and Protestant churches. Wikipedia says Rwanda is 57% Catholic and 26% Protestant. Other sources give wildly different estimates for Protestants, both higher and lower, but always smaller than Catholic. Most of the genocide clearly involved Catholics churches, but the size of the disparity is unclear. I suspect Longman whitewashed the differences.

His description suggests that the failure of church leaders was only one of omission – failing to protect the Tutsis. But Longman subsequently shows that priests were also directly involved in committing genocide: “As critics of Rwanda’s churches have pointed out, not only did church buildings become the site of massacres, but most of the killers were Christians, and even some pastors and priests participated in the slaughter.” Furthermore, “organizers of the death squads in many local communities included not only prominent church leaders, but sometimes priests, pastors, Catholic brothers, catechists, and other church employees…. death squads attended mass before going out to kill.” Furthermore, churches did not denounce the slaughter, and remained silent as various leaders asserted that the slaughter was God’s will.

As a legacy of Rwanda’s colonial period, religions were very powerful, almost part of the state: “Church leaders were prominent public figures with considerable influence in the public arena.” Longman concludes: “Far from being mere passive bystanders, Christian churches provided essential support for the slaughter.” Longman claims that only local clergy were involved. But he noted that the president, a Hutu, “was once again a leader hand-picked by Catholic Church officials.” It is hard to believe that only local clergy were involved in the genocide. While many priests were Tutsi, Longman notes that nearly all bishops were Hutu. It is unlikely that they had no influence over their local clergy.


Pope Francis acknowledges the Church’s involvement in Rwanda’s genocide. The Rwandan government thinks he greatly understates this involvement, and probably with good reason. In any case, we find that in the recent past, the Church participated in genocide and presided over the sexual abuse of many thousands of children. In Ireland and Australia, where it had significant secular power, it committed additional atrocities.

The Catholic Church has long asserted it is uniquely guided by the Holy Spirit. Just imagine the atrocities it might commit without such divine guidance! Jesus said, “By their fruit shall ye know them.” Name another major organization with such rotten fruit. Yet they are still treated reverently and given enormous privileges.

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