The Role of the Churches in the Rwandan Genocide

Churches are uniquely positioned to address conflict before it gets out of hand, says Lois M Wilson. Yet they failed to act 20 years ago in Rwanda.
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April 15, 2014

The Rwandan church was stacked with corpses. “The angels have left us,” wailed a survivor. “I will never enter this church again,” reports Hugh McCullum in his book about the genocide, later published by the World Council of Churches. 90 percent of the people were Christian, but they ignored the early warnings signs of conflict. The churches failed spectacularly to act for justice and peace in 1994. They were as divided as the country, each denomination aligning itself with a political party or ethnic group. There was also a proliferation of international aid agencies in the country, as well as the United Nations and the Organization for African Unity. All knew of the impending conflict but none raised a warning. It was left to the minority “surviving” church to signal a coming disaster, but this was ignored. The mainstream churches disregarded the smoldering, widely-known resentments of offending parties, and failed to address the long standing conditions that were ripe for genocide, although these were well-known as early as 1990. They buried the primary mandate of the gospel that requires justice and reconciliation and became more interested in power and control of the country for themselves. The clergy were left wondering how someone they had baptized could take a machete and hack another believer to death, even if they were of another ethnic origin.

Their colossal failure was echoed by the churches internationally, which had fought against apartheid, but that did not weigh in on genocide in Rwanda. Was it because Rwanda was viewed as being only representing a conflict between blacks? Does this historical failure cast doubt on the role of churches in helping resolve future post-conflict situations?

While it is a dangerous game for churches to align themselves too closely to any government policies or personnel, that should never deter Christian community from speaking and acting for justice and human rights. Christians need not be intimidated by those who insist religion is solely a private matter without public implications. Loving one’s neighbour is acted out in the public arena as well as the private sphere. Indeed, it is in the public square that churches can best contribute to the public discourse.

They are uniquely positioned to do so. Since they are on the ground with grass roots campaigns and leaders, churches are in a position to discern the early warning signs of conflict before they explode into war.  Because their leadership is usually trusted by their membership, churches are also singularly able to work with people on the ground. Their members need to understand the dynamics of incipient conflict and the banality of evil and be equipped to address the causes of the conflict before it gets out of hand.

Churches in post-conflict situations can and should address the moral consequences of the lack of responsibility on the part of both church members and government. Their identity as followers of Christ surely equips them to address the human consequences of suffering and death. They have an obligation to press for truth-telling about the crimes committed on both sides. This includes calling genocide what it is, and not settling for the word “massacre.” To promote post-conflict healing and reconciliation requires a great deal of courage, but the churches should lead from the front. Regional churches are well supported in their efforts to monitor, analyze, and provide information to their members for advocacy on human rights and global conflicts by the resolutions and deliberations of the World Council of Churches to which they all have access through their representatives. The shape of the church of the future hangs on addressing these issues and using the fora set up to make certain that “never again” truly means “never again.”

Throughout the month of April 2014, the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and will be publishing reflections on the lessons learned since the Rwandan Genocide from prominent Canadians who have shown leadership in promoting global humanitarianism as part of its series Canadian Voices on R2P.

Also in the series


Peacekeeping Does Not Have to Wait

Roméo Dallaire on how the international community can guarantee swift international action where civilians are under imminent threat.

Protecting the Responsiblity to Protect

The “responsibility to protect” be made real through “the capacity to deploy,” says Hugh Segal. Without that, the doctrine will lose salience.

New Tools to Prevent Mass Atrocities

Technology can be used to gather, analyze, and communicate information for the sake of predicting, preventing, and mitigating atrocities in an unprecedented way, argues Christopher Tuckwood.

How Much "Law" Is There in "International Law"?

Bob Rae on our collective failure to properly enforce the rule of law.

Renewing R2P

There is still much work to be done on how to define and apply R2P, but there is hope for the concept, says Lloyd Axworthy.

Today's Digital Witnesses Can Prevent Tomorrow's War Crimes

A growing cadre of scholars, practitioners, and hobbyists are leveraging new tools to help prevent gross violations of human rights and holding perpetrators to account after heinous crimes are committed, says Robert Muggah.

Returning to the Responsiblity to Protect

If we want to make R2P's hope of "never again" a reality, we need to turn away from the critique of sovereignty and the example of Libya, argues John Duncan.

Protecting R2P From Misuse

Acting on R2P inappropriately or invoking it as a pretext for other objectives like regime change can be as damaging as inaction to R2P’s long-run effectiveness, argues Maria L. Banda.

Time For Canada to Recommit to R2P

In the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, Canada has gone from being the most vocal supporter of the norm to one of its meekest.

Learning Something, Not Everything

Two decades ago, the global media virtually ignored the killing in Rwanda. Has it learned from its mistake since, asks Michael Valpy.

The Eight Lessons of Rwanda

Irwin Cotler on what we have learned in the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide.