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Bishops in Rwanda express their closeness to 1994 genocide survivors

Participants hold a candlelit night vigil at the BK arena in Kigali, Rwanda April 7, 2024, during a commemoration event known as "Kwibuka" (Remembering) to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. (OSV News photo/Jean Bizimana, Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya (OSV News) — As Rwanda marks 30 years since the 1994 genocide, the Catholic bishops in the country have expressed their closeness to survivors of the killings, while urging those convicted of crimes to seek forgiveness.

The bishops spoke as the East African nation of 14 million people began a weeklong mourning period April 7 to remember nearly 1 million killed in 100 days of slaughter.

“This crime caused misfortune and pain, the depth and breadth of which only God knows. Hearts still bleed, wounds are still fresh,” Bishop Anaclet Mwumvaneza of Nyundo, president of the Rwandan bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, said in a statement received by OSV News April 8.

He said he sends “a message of consolation and closeness to the survivors of the genocide in this moment of deep pain for the loss of their loved ones.”

The massacre was triggered on April 6, 1994, when suspected rebels shot down a plane carrying Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana. Ethnic Hutu extremists blamed the incident on the Tutsi ethnic group led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front and went on a killing spree, targeting ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

What was eventually called genocide and is remember to this day as one of the most horrific mass ethnic murders of the 20th century ended in July 1994 with the arrival of RPF. The official death toll stood at 800,000, but Rwandans say the genocide took more than a million lives and thousands of others were pushed out as refugees. Thousands of women and girls had also been raped.

Rwandan authorities have long blamed the international community for ignoring warnings about the killings, and some Western leaders have expressed regret — with President Bill Clinton, at the time in office, citing the Rwandan genocide as a failure of his administration. Clinton was present at the state commemoration of the killings in Kigali, Rwandan capital, on April 7.

Bishop Mwumvaneza said the road to healing over the last 30 years was long, but saw actions aimed at rebuilding the country.

“This time gives us the opportunity to look back on this painful past and opens us to a radiant future that we want to experience together as a national community,” the bishop said.

He added that the church had encouraged forgiveness as a remedy. “Forgiveness requested, given and received constitutes the foundation of good human … relations.”

He also urged “those who have been convicted of the crime of genocide to humble themselves and sincerely ask for forgiveness and the survivors to offer this beautiful gift of forgiveness.”

During the week of mourning, national flags will be lowered, with people holding night vigils and walks to honor both victims and survivors.

Father Lembert Dusingizimana, secretary of the bishops’ secretariat for Catholic schools in Rwanda, said the church was looking back at the events of that year while assessing its contribution to the reconciliation and resilience in the past 30 years.

“The remembering and commemoration mean a lot,” Father Dusingizimana told OSV News.

“The Catholic Church celebrates also with our people: the resurrection, life and resilience (of the nation).”

For Immaculée Ilibagiza, Catholic survivor and best-selling author of “Left to Tell,” the genocide in Rwanda was filled with the horror of loosing her family, but also with hope of finding God.

In the wake of the killing, her father, a devout Catholic, sent 22-year-old Ilibagiza to a house of a local pastor, who managed to shelter her and seven other women in a tiny bathroom for 91 days. Hutu murderers, going door to door with machetes and mercilessly killing entire families, did not find them.

“I knew that my heart and mind would always be tempted to feel anger — to find blame and hate. But I resolved that when the negative feelings came upon me, I wouldn’t wait for them to grow or fester. I would always turn immediately to the Source of all true power: I would turn to God and let His love and forgiveness protect and save me,” she wrote in her memoir book subtitled “Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.”

Her parents and siblings — except one studying abroad at the time — were killed by Hutus, but Ilibagiza was able to forgive the killer. Throughout the horror of the genocide, she was praying the rosary her father handed her as they were separated.

In launching the commemoration, Rwandan President Paul Kagame laid wreaths at a mass grave in Kigali. He told the gathering that the country commemorated the genocide because the lives lost mattered.

“As the years pass, the descendants of survivors increasingly struggle with the quiet loneliness of longing for relatives they never met, or never even got the chance to be born,” he said. “Our journey has been long and tough. Rwanda was completely humbled by the magnitude of our loss, and the lessons we learned are engraved in blood.”

In 2016, the Catholic Church in Rwanda apologized for the role played by individual clergy and church members in the genocide.

The bishops emphasized the church did not send any priests or church members to kill, although some of its members planned, aided and executed the genocide.

Human rights activists and survivors wanted the Catholic Church to apologize for decades. They argued that people fled to the churches hoping to be saved, only to be killed there by Hutu militia.

Ilibagiza noted in her book that “instead of negotiating or begging for mercy, (my brother Damascene) challenged them to kill him. ‘Go ahead,’ he said. ‘What are you waiting for? Today is my day to go to God. I can feel Him all around us. He is watching, waiting to take me home. Go ahead — finish your work and send me to paradise.'”

She added: “Murder is no game: If you offend God, you will pay for your fun. The blood of the innocent people you cut down will follow you to your reckoning. But I am praying for you. … I pray that you see the evil you’re doing and ask God’s forgiveness before it’s too late.”

Fredrick Nzwili writes for OSV News from Nairobi, Kenya.

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