The feature story appearing in this Monitor issue (page 22) about the 30th anniversary of the Marian apparitions in Kibeho, Rwanda prompts reflection on the complex and anguished history that followed the Vatican-approved visions. It is a history that far too few people around the world understood well, or recall now, despite the enormity of its horror.
The Rwandan genocide marks one of the most shameful chapters of modern times. By most accounts, 800,000 Rwandans – men, women and children – were slaughtered by their countrymen and, in many cases, their next-door-neighbors – in the 100 days that followed the April, 1994 assassination of the nation’s president. The massacre was the culmination of intensifying animosity between the two ethnic groups – the Hutus and Tutsis – and the civil war that had preceded it.
Added to the devastation of the genocide was the abysmally inadequate and misguided conduct of the international community, which largely stood by and allowed the unleashed evil to run its course. So clear was the failure of world leaders in acknowledging these acts for what they were – genocide – and committing the will and the resources needed to effectively bring it to an end that both the secretary general of the United Nations and the President of the United States would later repent of their inaction and extend formal apologies. The Rwandan genocide rightfully came to be known as “the world’s tragedy.”
While the Rwandan genocide is indeed an inextricable part of the world’s history, it is also a uniquely Catholic tragedy, bringing with it a staggering blow to the Church and her people. Rwanda is a predominantly Catholic country with both Hutus and Tutsis numbered among the faithful. While criticism was levied against the Church for not doing enough to help people seeking refuge, and indeed there were confirmed instances of some Church workers not doing enough or being complicit in the killings, the overwhelming truth is that the Church was also under attack in the genocide and suffered immeasurable losses.
Nothing could bring this into better focus than this archived article from Catholic News Service, dated Dec. 5, 1994:
POPE NAMES ADMINISTRATORS TO CARE FOR RWANDAN DIOCESES
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope John Paul II has named apostolic administrators to three dioceses in Rwanda whose bishops were murdered during the African nation’s savage civil war. At the same time, the pope named apostolic administrators for another Rwandan diocese whose bishop has been missing since June and is feared dead, and for a fifth diocese whose bishop is in exile. The appointments were announced Dec. 3 at the Vatican.
Before the fighting ignited in April 1994, about 3.3 million Catholics – 44 percent of the Rwandan population – lived in nine dioceses. Three of the country’s remaining four bishops were named apostolic administrators of the vacant dioceses. A Rwandan diocesan priest and a Missionary of Africa were named to head the other sees.
Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva of Kigali and Bishops Thaddee Nsengiyumva of Kabgayi and Joseph Ruzindana of Byumba were shot dead last June by Rwandan Tutsi rebels who apparently murdered the clergymen in revenge for the deaths of family members at the hands of Hutu militias.
In response to the escalating violence in 1994, leaders of the Catholic Church throughout the world, most prominently Pope John Paul II, were extremely strident in their pleas for help for the Rwandan people. The Catholic media captured much of this discourse, with 1994 headlines that read:
POPE DEPLORES MURDER OF RWANDAN BISHOPS, CALLS FOR END TO CARNAGE
PAPER SAYS RWANDANS DROWN IN BLOOD WHILE NATIONS DISCUSS SITUATION
BISHOP PLEADS FOR RETAINING U.N. TROOP LEVELS IN RWANDA
VATICAN AGENCY URGES REGIONAL EFFORT TO END RWANDA SLAUGHTER
It seems surreal that all of this could have happened in most of our lifetimes and that nothing was done to stop it in time. It is even more unbelievable how little is made of it today.
But for Catholics, the ravages of this genocide are not the end of the Rwandan story. The redemption that we seek in all things comes in the form of forgiveness, which the people of Rwanda today strive to uphold, even as they struggle with it.
We should be thankful for people like Immaculee Ilibagiza, the Rwandan survivor who has dedicated her life to not only telling the story of the genocide, but also of the ardent faith of her country. Despite the horrors she faced there and the close brush she had with death herself, Ilibagiza returns to her homeland on missions of peace, trying to build bridges between neighbors who were once murderers and those whose loved ones were killed. This advocate of peace relives her story many times over as she speaks in schools, parishes and any place where people want to learn about the depths to which humanity can descend and the incontrovertible power of faith.
It is Ilibagiza’s most recent project, that of spreading the message of Our Lady of Kibeho on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of her apparition, that led to the development of this Monitor story and we are indeed grateful for her cooperation, and that of our own Patrick Dolan, (who works with our Radio and Television Department) whose experience traveling with Ilibagiza is the basis of the feature. May we all take to heart the transformative gifts of love and forgiveness of which Our Lady spoke, even as we pledge to never forget what happened in Rwanda.