- 15 Aug 01
EAMONN McCANN reports on detailed, eye-witness claims of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 – and of the Vatican’s efforts to protect the guilty
On June 8th last, groups campaigning to bring Catholic priests and nuns to trial for mass murder in Rwanda scored a success when a Belgian court sentenced two nuns to long terms in prison for complicity in the killing of up to 7,000 Tutsis in 1994.
After 11 hours deliberation, a jury decided that Sister Gertrude, 42, and Sister Maria Kisito, 36, had joined with Hutu extremists in carrying out the mass slaughter.
Sister Gertrude was sentenced to 15 years, Sister Maria Kisito to 12 years.
However, five weeks later, on July 15th, when Church authorities in Italy helped Father Athanase Seromba to flee from the village of San Mauro a Signa outside Florence just hours before he had promised to respond in a sermon to a decision of the UN Tribunal for Rwanda to seek his extradition on genocide charges. Seromba is accused of murdering between 2,000 and 2,500 people.
The cases highlight allegations by lawyers, human rights organisations and groups of Catholics within Rwanda, including priests, that scores of Catholic clergy played an active and prominent role in the events which left hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Hutu opponents of the government dead in April and June 1994.
The Rwandan and other hierarchies and the Vatican have helped spirit wanted clergy out of the country and provided them with safe houses and, in some instances, new identities.
The case taken against the two nuns, members of the Benedictine order, was the first of its kind. It had been made possible by a law passed in 1993 whereby Belgium gave itself the right to bring suspected war criminals to trial regardless of their nationality or that of the victims or the location where the alleged offences took place.
Throughout the trial in the Palais de Justice in Brussels, Church leaders and publications protested the nuns’ innocence. Sister Gertrude in 1994 had been mother superior at the Sovu convent near the town of Butare. The charge against her was that she delivered thousands of Tutsis who had sought sanctuary in the convent compound into the hands of the Hutu militia gathered outside and had watched as many were put to death.
She was also accused of contacting officials days later to ask them to remove the last remaining 30 Tutsi from the convent premises. It is assumed that all were murdered.
Sister Maria was accused of supplying petrol to the militia to burn down a garage in which 500 Tutsi refugees were locked.
Both nuns claimed that they had been terrified bystanders unable to intervene. In a statement, however, the leader of the Hutu militia in Butari admitted his own part in the massacre and claimed that the nuns had provided vehicles, information and support for the killing.
More than 150 witnesses testified at the eight-week trial, including 50 flown in from Rwanda. (Two other Rwandans, Vincent Ntezimana, a university professor, and Alphonse Higaniro, a businessman and former transport minister in Rwanda, were convicted at the same time of organising the murder of thousands of Tutsis. Higaniro was sentenced to 20 years. Sentence on Ntezimana was postponed.)
The case came to trial following a parliamentary inquiry and years of pressure from the investigating judge, Damien Vandermeersch, and from Belgian and international human rights groups. Vandermeersch had accused the attorney general's office of impeding the inquiry and the Catholic Church of obstructing the investigation. The Belgian Church had sheltered the two nuns in a monastery near Brussels since their arrival in the country in 1994.
While the conviction of the nuns establishes a precedent which human rights lawyers and others are studying intently, the Seromba case is more typical of the fate so far of Rwandan Catholic clerics wanted for complicity in the 1994 events.
Parishioners who packed the 16th-century church at San Mauro a Signa on the third Sunday in July to hear Seromba’s defence were dismayed when told that he had gone from the parish.
A spokesman for the diocese, Riccardo Bigi, told reporters that the hierarchy had provided Seromba with a refuge in Tuscany to help him escape media attention.
Seromba had been “too upset to defend himself”.
A “Charge Sheet” issued in 1999 by the London-based human rights group African Rights (AR) summarises the allegations against the 36-year-old priest. It says that Seromba had been left in charge of the parish of Nyange in the Kibuye district when parish priest Straton Karanganw fled, alarmed at growing tension and instability in the area. Following the death of Rwanda’s Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana in a plane crash on April 6 – the event which triggered the blood-letting – Seromba, says AR, took the initiative to organise the extermination of the local Tutsi population. “In endless meetings at the parish, there was never any question about the need to wipe out the Tutsi population; the only debates surrounded how to best effect the killings”. AR says Seromba used his authority as parish priest to persuade Tutsis to assemble, and then supervised their slaughter.
On April 15, according to AR, militiamen and civilians surrounded a large crowd of Tutsis assembled by Seromba and used guns, grenades, machetes and spears to kill them. Seromba, it says, “gave orders to the killers and shot at those who tried to escape”. When terrified Tutsis fled into the church, Seromba is said to have ordered its demolition with the people inside, and to have arranged and paid for the hire of two bulldozers for the purpose. Between 2,000 and 2,500 people were killed at the parish, many crushed to death in the church.
Within weeks, almost the entire Tutsi community in the district had been annihilated. Seromba then moved his services to another parish building. In a statement, local businessman Callixte Mudahumuka says, "Fr. Seromba continued holding mass after all the Tutsis of Nyange had been killed. During mass, he used to tell us that the death of the Tutsis was only to be expected.”
Later in 1994, Seromba left for Zaire, as it then was, before travelling on to Kenya, and thence to Italy.
Witnesses prepared to testify against Seromba include: his former night watchman; his former cook; a civilian living in Nyange who witnessed some of the events; the former head of the local communal police force; a former communal policeman; a former assistant magistrate in the area; a former district councillor; one of the two bulldozer drivers; a farmer now in detention and awaiting trial for his own role; a Nyange businessman; and seven survivors of the massacre.
Arriving in Italy in 1995, Seromba was allowed to change his name to “Don Anastasio Sumba Bura” and appointed deputy parish priest at a church in Florence before moving 18 months ago to San Mauro a Signa.
In 1998, AR was prompted to write to John Paul II calling for an inquiry into Seromba’s case and those of other accused Catholic clergy following the Pope's intervention in the cases of 22 people sentenced to death in the Rwandan courts for their part in the massacres. The Pope had pleaded for clemency "in the interests of reconciliation".
Extracts from the letter to John Paul appear below. Last month, three Rwandans wanted by the UN tribunal sitting in neighbouring Tanzania were arrested in raids in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. However, the Berlusconi government in Italy refused to hand over a fourth suspect, Seromba. It was in these circumstances that Seromba let it be known that he would respond to the allegations from the pulpit on July 15.
Berlusconi’s spokesman said that there was no legal provision in Italy for handing over a suspect to a UN Tribunal. Cynics have remarked that if this fact had been more widely known just a few weeks earlier, Mr. Slobodon Milosevic might by now be sunning himself on the coast after a short flight across the Adriatic rather than languishing in a cell in The Hague.
AR and many others suspect that the real reason for the failure to hand Seromba over had to do with pressure from the Vatican anxious to avoid a trial which would have shown its clergy's role in the Rwandan genocide.
“The Catholic Church had a unique responsibility…”
An edited version of the Open Letter sent by African Rights to Pope John Paul II in May 1998
Bishops and priests belonging to every denomination are wanted for the crime of genocide. But the Catholic Church, commanding the allegiance of more than 60% of the population, had~and still has~a unique responsibility. If, in April 1994, Catholic leaders in Rwanda had condemned the genocide in forthright terms and sought to isolate the regime in power, it would undoubtedly have set an example to other Churches, and to their own faithful.
Time and again in the course of investigating massacres all over Rwanda, we have encountered survivors and witnesses who were horrified that God’s own servants could have been a part of this betrayal of humanity. Many of them are Catholics who have since lost faith in God, or in Catholicism.
Fr. Thaddée Rusingizandekwe, a former military chaplain, was among the men who led a major massacre at the Catholic Parish of Kibeho in Gikongoro. Armed with a gun, he personally shot into the crowd and threw grenades, after which the wounded and the survivors were set on fire inside the church. Fr. Hormisdas Nsengiyumva, the rector of Christ Roi College in Nyanza, Butare, was one of the three men who organised and implemented the genocide there. He is widely accused of being behind the murder of four Tutsi priests. He refused to have them buried and allowed their bodies to be eaten by dogs and crows. He was evacuated to Italy and is now working as a priest in Cameroon.
Fr. Anaclet Sebahinde was a military chaplain based in Butare. He is accused of taking groups of militia up to the high mountains in the Huye region, looking for refugees hiding in the forests and ditches. Those who were found were killed. Militiamen identify Fr. Sebahinde as the man who organised the murder in Gikongoro, in early July 1994, of two priests and eight Benedictine nuns from Sovu, Butare.
Fr. Joseph Sagahutu served at the Parish of Muganza in Gikongoro. Throughout the genocide, he worked openly with Damien Biniga, the sous-préfet who orchestrated the massacres in that region. On 15 April, he is said to have helped Biniga and his militia kill thousands of refugees sheltering in his parish.
Mgr Augustin Misago, Bishop of Gikongoro, sent the Tutsis who sought his help to Murambi, where they were massacred in huge numbers. He knew that all the roads were manned by militiamen hunting Tutsis to kill. Nor did the bishop lift a finger to save 90 schoolchildren isolated in the College of Kibeho who had been threatened and who feared for their lives. On 4 May, the bishop was part of a delegation which spoke with the children. Three days later, 82 of them were massacred. The few children who survived this massacre are ready to speak. Bishop Misago participated in all the major “security” meetings organised by the préfet and the army. He also met frequently with some of the priests who are accused of having taken an active part in the killings, such as Fr. Anaclet Sebahinde, Fr. Hormisdas Nsengiyumva and Fr. Martin Kabalira. After the genocide, Gikongoro became a haven for the killers. A number of them became employees of the Caritas office of the diocese.
Archbishop Thaddée Ntihinyurwa was Bishop of Cyangugu during the genocide. Anxious to safeguard the buildings, the bishop refused to allow Tutsi refugees to hide in the cathedral.
Accompanied by the notorious préfet of Cyangugu, Emmanuel Bagambiki, and soldiers, he forced them out to be driven to a football stadium. On the way to the stadium, the refugees sang funeral songs. Between 15th – 17th April, several thousand refugees were massacred at the parish of Nyamasheke. The bishop visited them on the 13th and 14th. The bishop gave them communion and departed, but took no other action. Throughout April, May and June 1994, Bagambiki organised and participated in massacres of Tutsis sheltering in Catholic parishes that belonged to the bishop’s diocese, as well as massacres elsewhere, but the bishop remained silent. The bishop’s own watchman has accused him of turning away his uncle, who was deaf and dumb. He insisted that he leave the bishopric; he was subsequently murdered.
After the genocide, Bishop Ntihinyurwa thanked the Christians of the Parish of Mwezi for having protected parish property. He said nothing about the Christians who were murdered there at the parish and commune office. Yet the genocide in Mwezi was so successful that when AR visited the area in early 1995, we were unable to locate a single survivor.
Not long after the genocide, Bishop Ntihinyurwa was appointed Archbishop.
Brother Jean-Baptiste Rutihunza of the Frères de la Charité, is accused of having organised the murder of disabled Tutsi children and staff at a centre for the handicapped in Gatagara, Gitarama. He is now living in Italy.
Numerous witnesses have also given detailed testimonies against two other priests living in Italy, Fr. Emmanuel Rukundo and Fr. Daniel Nahimana, for their role in the genocide in Gitarama.
A memorandum addressed to your Holiness in March 1996 by a group of Rwandese Catholics detailed the extent of the violations committed by Catholic clergy, the history of their involvement in ethnic politics, and their virulent anti-Tutsi rhetoric. They asked that you: “adopt measures to ensure that the Catholic Church… confess and undo its errors of the past, while committing itself to a new path more in conformity with the Gospel and with the spirit of justice and truth.” But their call for the Church to search its conscience was not appreciated.
Your Holiness, we ask that you investigate the allegations against your clergy in Rwanda and make your conclusions public.
Only the decision to scrutinise the Church’s role in the genocide and to respond in an open manner to the accusations levelled against its servants can redeem it in the eyes of the victims of that genocide. We do not underestimate the difficulties; we realise the decision is a difficult one and the process long and painful. But it is the only way forward. We look to you, your Holiness, to initiate and guide this process of reflection, confession and self-examination.
(All the clergy mentioned remain in good standing with the Catholic Church. The Church has instituted no investigation of the role of its clergy in the 1994 events.)