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The Catholic Church in Rwanda

Friday, February 10, 2012
Before their evangelisation, Rwandans believed in one God, Imana. This rich cocktail of Semitic and Bantu people had come to realise over centuries that only one magnificent being was the ruler of the universe. When missionaries entered the Rwandan kingdom to evangelise it, they were misled by people’s belief in the power of different ancestors and thought they were evangelising a polytheistic kingdom. It took a few years to have a few Rwandan theologians who would then explain that Imana could be used to mean the same God missionaries might have thought they brought to Rwanda. As John Mbiti wrote,” The missionaries who introduced the gospel to Africa in the past 200 years did not bring God to our continent. Instead, God brought them” (http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1746).

The first Catholic Church parish was inaugurated in 1900. The first missionaries were priests from the congregation of the Missionaries of Africa, also known as White Fathers. From the beginning, the Catholic Church had the support of the colonial powers (Germany till 1916 and Belgium, officially, from 1919 to 1962). It is nowadays unsustainably believed in Rwanda that missionaries have contributed to the ethnical and social divisions that might have occurred in the first half of the 20th century. This would be a very much debatable statement.

The Catholic Church grew and strengthened herself very quickly: the Bible was translated into the national language (Kinyarwanda), nine dioceses were created. Schools, universities, banks were started by Catholic Religious orders and the diocesan clergy. Rwanda became one of African countries with the highest percentage of the Catholic population. In the early 1980s, a very rural and poor village of Rwanda, Kibeho, experienced the apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Today, two shrines are built there and Rwandan Catholics go there today to regret what was to follow in the early 1990s.

When Rwanda got its independence in 1962, the Catholic Church remained dangerously close to the civil power that ruled over a divided population. Divisions among clergy members started and only a few Christians chose to resist the temptation to adopt hatred over the fraternal love they had been taught by the Church. When the civil war started in October 1990 those divisions increased. In 1994, the country experienced one of the worst human bloodbaths of the 20th century: the Rwandan Genocide. Almost a million of people were killed in less than 100 days. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in churches, sometimes betrayed by the priests who had offered to hide them. The killings ended with the death of four Catholic bishops, hundreds of priests, members of religious orders and hundreds of thousands of Christians. Most of those were executed by fellow Christians. All those who remained were traumatized; either by what they endured or what they made their brothers and sisters undergo. Among two millions who left the country for Congolese refugee camps, more than three quarters were Christians. Hundreds of thousands died on their way to and from those camps. Today, the percentage of the Catholic Christians is less than 55%. It is said that many people left the Catholic Church after experiencing the lack of true love and care among its members inRwanda.

Despite all those hardships, many Catholics did not lose faith and kept their hope in the resurrection of a church that had lost many of her children. They looked at those who kept their faith and gave their lives protecting targeted fellow Christians. Indeed, dozens of Catholics protected the lives of hundreds people. Some of those were killed trying to shield them. They are already national heroes and the Church is still waiting for the beatification of some of them. Among them one would mention Sister Félicitée Niyitegeka and Father Jean-Bosco Munyaneza

The Rwandan Catholics try to understand what went wrong in the evangelisation they received from the missionaries. Today, an important place is given to the personal encounter with the Gospel, through spiritual directions, retreats and healthy debates in small Christian communities. The institutional church, which remains close to the power to a certain degree, tries to facilitate the reconciliation process among her children. An African theology is being done by Rwandan scholars who realised that they quickly assimilated a foreign way of thinking about their Christian faith, considering their roots as evil and demonic. The current issues in the Rwandan theology – as in the any other African theology – make them undertake a reconciliation of its African ethics of respect to all living beings and the ancestors with the evangelisation that they received from the West after it had gone through centuries of European acclimatization. Ecumenism is also being strengthened in Rwanda and any effort to slow it down is viewed as a yearning to return to the dark years of hatred. If the Catholic Church wants to rehabilitate its image in Rwanda, she owes to the Rwandans to be an example, starting by reconciling herself with other Christian churches and major faiths, with which actually she never had major issues or wars in Rwanda, contrary to what is found in the history of many other countries.

Catholics in Rwanda are recovering from their past and their celebrations are joyful, colourful and thousands of noted liturgical hymns in the national language are written every year especially by seminarians. Vocations to religious life and to priesthood are increasing again and one might expect a rebirth of a sweet and melodiousCatholic community from the bitter ashes of her past.

Here is a video of a thanksgiving hymn (in Kirundi) by a Dominican choir from Bujumbura in Burundi, a neighbouring country. After decades in war, the Dominican Vicariate of Rwanda and Burundi helps the youth to reconnect with God through local music.

By Br. Gustave Noel INEZA OP

Gustave Ineza OP


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