Global Policy Forum

Rwanda 'Genocide' Priest on Trial

September 20, 2004

A Roman Catholic priest accused of taking part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide has gone on trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in Tanzania. Athanase Seromba is the first Catholic priest to go on trial at the tribunal, set up after the slaughter of some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. He denies charges that he organised the massacre of more than 2,000 Tutsis at a church in the west of Rwanda. He refused to appear in court, accusing the tribunal of bias.

Former Rwandan army chief of staff Major-General Augustin Bizimungu also boycotted the start of his trial on Monday. They are unhappy at plans to speed up the work of the tribunal in the town of Arusha, by transferring those found guilty, and possibly trials, to Rwanda.


The BBC's Rob Walker in Kigali says that today vast mounds of earth and concrete are all that remain of the church at Nyange. Flowers and a row of crosses mark the site, but otherwise it has been left untouched for a decade - one of Rwanda's countless monuments to the dead.

But the killings here, even by the standards of the genocide, were particularly brutal, our correspondent says. As Hutu militias stood guard outside, the church doors were locked, then bulldozers arrived to demolish the building. More than 2,000 Tutsis sheltering inside were crushed to death. It is the parish priest, Father Athanase Seromba, who now stands accused of directing this massacre of Tutsis from among his own congregation.

Faster justice

Rob Walker says the start of Father Seromba's trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda will revive heated debate about the role of the Catholic Church during the dark days of 1994. The Catholic hierarchy in Rwanda had close ties to extremist politicians in the run up to the genocide and some priests like Father Seromba are accused of actively assisting the Hutu militias.

In 2001, two nuns were found guilty of taking part in the genocide in a Belgian court. The Vatican accepts there are individuals in the church who committed crimes, but controversially, it says the Church as an institution cannot be held to blame. At the time of the genocide, some 60% of Rwandans were Catholic but some have since converted to Islam, saying the Church failed them in 1994.

Rwanda's government, now dominated by Tutsis, has criticised the slow pace at which the Arusha tribunal has worked. But our correspondent says that it has speeded up its work in the past year. It is supposed to complete all investigation by the end of this year and all trials by the end of 2008.

More Information on International Justice
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