Global Policy Forum

Vatican Puzzled by Verdict Against Rwandan Nuns

afrol News
June 10, 2001

In a surprising move, the Catholic Church states its scepticism about the milestone verdict against two Rwandan nuns, found guilty on genocide charges by a Belgian court. As afrol News earlier has reported, several local church societies were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, killing an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Vatican spokesman Joaquí­n Navarro Valls yesterday said, "The Holy See cannot but express a certain surprise at seeing the grave responsibility of so many people and groups involved in this tremendous genocide in the heart of Africa heaped on so few people." Navarro Valls thus indicates the Catholic Church's scepticism about a Belgian court 'picking on' two relative small perpetrators in the 1994 genocide, while key organisers still are not facing charges.

Spokesman Navarro Valls however refers to the more reconciling message by Pope John Paul to Rwandans in May 1996. The Pope thus said: "The Church ... cannot be held responsible for the guilt of its members that have acted against the evangelic law; they will be called to render account of their own actions. All Church members that have sinned during the genocide must have the courage to assume the consequences of their deeds they have done against God and fellow men."

The Pope's 1996 statement theoretically places the Catholic Church in accordance with other church societies in Rwanda, where many local representatives had participated in the genocide. The Anglican Church of Rwanda, for example, clearly distances itself from its former Bishop Samuel Musabyimana, detained on genocide charges by the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha in May.

Navarro Valls' statement of "surprise" however casts new doubts over the Vatican's willingness to distance itself from perpetuators within its own organisation. Widespread allegations in Rwanda, supported by the government, sustain that the Catholic Church indeed as an organisation is co-responsible of the genocide for its five decades of supporting the radicalisation of those Hutu groups who finally organised the worst genocide on African soil. (See also afrol Background: "The Cross and the Genocide").

The case of the two nuns convicted in Brussels demonstrates the wide range of support to the genocide in Rwandan society in 1994. Sisters Gertrude Mukangango and Julienne Kisito were convicted to 15 and 12 years of imprisonment for their involvement in the slaughter of at least 5,000 civilians that had sought refuge in their monastery at Sovu. Witnesses had observed that the two nuns actively had directed the death squadrons to their refuge and even handed over gasoline to burn down the building with the civilians inside. The nuns pleaded not guilty.

It was noted that Sister Gertrude and Sister Julienne appeared in the Brussels court wearing their monastic habits, thus demonstrating they still were acting nuns of the Catholic Church. There are no statements from the Vatican indicating the nuns will be excommunicated from the Church, further enhancing Rwandan doubts whether the Vatican takes its responsibilities serious.

The Brussels trial, which also convicted Professor Vincent Ntezimana and Alphonse Higaniro for their participation in the genocide, is considered a milestone trial in international law. It is the first Rwanda genocide trial outside Rwanda and outside the UN special Tribunal in Arusha (ICTR). It was also the first time former colonial power Belgium used a law passed seven years ago, allowing its courts to hear cases of alleged human rights violations even if they were committed abroad.

The trial gained an enormous attention in Belgium and thus was seen as an important eye-opener regarding Belgian responsibilities. Belgium, having a troubled history regarding its colonial presence in Africa (Congo Kinshasa, Rwanda and Burundi) had managed to avoid a debate about its colonial past. Belgium had provoked the division between Tutsis and Hutus during colonial rule and, even worse, had turned a blind eye on the genocide. The trial thus has had an element of clearing the nation's bad conscience.

In Rwanda, the Belgian court decision was met with joy. "It is highly positive that Belgium, a foreign country, pursues and punishes crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda. Other countries should follow this example," Rwandan Justice Minister Jean de Dieu Mucyo told the Reuters news agency. The Rwandan government has been frustrated by the low efficiency of the ICTR, where only eight people have been found guilty so far. This week, the ICTR even acquitted one main suspect, ex-mayor Ignace Bagilishema, because witnesses had presented contradicting stories.

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