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Catholic World News News Feature

Decapitating the Church October 17, 2001

As CWR goes to press, Bishop Augustin Misago of Gikongoro, who has been imprisoned in the Rwandan capital of Kigali since April, 1999, is awaiting the court's verdict in his trial on eight charges of genocide, complicity in genocide, and crimes against humanity. These charges stem from the bishop's alleged role in the 1994 Rwandan massacre. Prosecutors have requested the death penalty.

Bishop Misago was arrested last year after a speech in which Pasteur Bizimungu--who was then the president of Rwanda--linked the bishop to the massacres. In a jailhouse interview with the Vatican’s Fides news Service, the bishop rejected the charges, which center on an allegation that he deliberately sent 82 children to their deaths at the hands of militias. Bishop Misago charges that he is being used as a scapegoat by the current regime, which is trying to shift the burden of responsibility for the massacres away from its own leaders, and onto the Catholic Church. "I'm innocent," the bishop said. "But through me, the Rwandan government is targeting the Catholic Church."

The Church has been a prime target in the search for people to blame for the Rwandan violence; Catholics leaders have been accused of complicity with the killers--often on the grounds that they allegedy maintained their silence during the massacres. The Rwandan hierarchy has rejected these claims, arguing that the real reason for the current attacks lies in the fact that many members of the Catholic clergy are from the Hutu ethnic group, whose members committed most of the murders.

Bishop Misago is the highest ranking clergyman to be accused of "genocide" by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), but there are more than 20 other Catholic priests and nuns awaiting trial. Earlier this year a Rwandan court sentenced two priests to death for organizing the execution of 2,000 Tutsis who had sought refuge inside a church. (The victims in that massacre were crushed to death by bulldozers.) The two priests, who maintained their innocence, were the first clergy to be convicted in connection with the 1994 killings.

L’Osservatore Romano has charged that the prosecution of Bishop Misago is part of "a real disinformation campaign" launched against the Catholic Church by the RPF-led government.

SETTLING OLD SCORES

"One of the main goals of the RPF was to decapitate the Church in Rwanda," says Marcel Niyonzima, a Hutu refugee who is now seeking political asylum in the US. When the Tutsis fled to neighboring countries after being ousted from political power in the revolution in 1959, they took with them memories of the Catholic missionaries who had come to Africa from Belgium. It was these Belgian missionaries who set the stage for the revolution by their insistence on equal rights and majority rule. When the sons and grandsons of the Tutsi refugees returned to Rwanda in 1990 under the banner of the RPF, Catholic bishops, priests, and religious were a conspicuous target. The rebels slaughtered four bishops including the Archbishop of Kigali, early in 1994.

Refugees who fled Rwanda in the 1990s believe strongly that Bishop Misago is innocent of all charges. "He’s not the kind of man who goes around inciting people to murder," says Antoni Nyandwi, who now teaches in an American university. Nyandwi was a classmate of Bishop Misago's during his school years in Rwanda.

Niyonzima, too, knew the bishop personally. Misago had taught at the school he attended back in Rwanda before Misago was named a bishop. "The Hutu and Tutsi students were all united for the most part," Niyonzima recalls of school days. "Ethnic tensions were minimal."

Marcel explains that the RPF is charging the Hutu bishop, as well as many other bishops and priests, of being partners in a plan to train young Hutu men for a campaign designed to rid the country of the Tutis minority. Marcel argues that there is a good deal of evidence to counter that allegation. In fact, he says, the evidence suggests that Misago saved many Tutsi clergymen from being killed.

A CURIOUS TRIAL

The prosecution in Bishop Misago's trial, which presented its case against the bishop in a series of hearings during the autumn of 1999, was unable to provide compelling evidence of the bishop's involvement. In fact, at times the prosecution seemed to be arguing not that the bishop helped to plan the massacre, or that he was a material accomplice to the killers, but simply that he was slow to deliver aid to the survivors.

When the defense finally began to present its case for Bishop Misago in December 1999, the prosecution suffered a serious embarrassment. One of the first defense witnesses was a young man who had been listed in the prosecution's indictment as among the victims of the Kigeme massacre--the incident on which the prosecution's case was built. This surprise witness not only appeared in court, alive and well, but also gave Bishop Misago credit for saving his life.

The trial took another interesting turn on January 18 of this year when a witness for the defense reported that she had received a series of threats as soon as it became known that she would testify on behalf of the bishop. Despite those threats, she stood before the court to say that, on the day of the massacre, Bishop Misago had brought ten boys to the hospital for medical checkups and treatments. The boys were receiving care at the Kigeme medical center at the moment when a militia troops arrived, she said. The militia then killed the boys, despite the bishop's efforts to save them.

Other witnesses also testified that Bishop Misago had made special efforts to ease tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes.

SCAPEGOAT

The bishop's trial has itself become the focus of a heated controversy, since so many observers believe that the RPF-led government is seeking to transfer blame onto the Catholic Church for the 1994 massacres. The most serious charges against the bishop have been brought forward by a group known as African Rights. According to the Belgian magazine Dialogue, African Rights--a splinter group which broke away from the international organization Human Rights Watch--is supportive of the RPF and its leader Paul Kagame. In November, 1999, a former RPF leader who fled into exile after quarreling with Kagame said that the group had devised a strategy of discrediting the Catholic Church in order to consolidate its own political power.

Rwanda is Africa's most Catholic country; of the country's 8 million people, approximately 65 percent are Catholics. Consequently the Church has wielded enormous influence over the country's affairs. A new government, looking to shore up its control of a country that has slipped dangerously close to anarchy, does not need to look very far to find a convenient institutional enemy; the Catholic Church is a ready target.

Whatever its motives, the RPF government has certainly stepped up the pace of prosecution in connection with the 1994 killings--although the system of justice works painfully slowly. According to a recent report by the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, in the six months between December 1998 and June 1999, the number of minors detained on genocide charges leapt from 2,674 to 4,454. The League says Rwandan courts to date have convicted 1,908 defendants. A total 130,000 people are still awaiting trial. This means that--more than five years after the massacres--fewer than 1.5 percent of the prisoners arrested on genocide-related charges have been given a day in court.

L'Osservatore Romano has described the case against Misago as a government campaign to hold the Catholic Church solely responsible for the genocide. The Vatican newspaper analysis points out that the Rwandan bishop has been the subject of brutal media criticism, much of it clearly initiated by government officials. Similar propaganda campaigns had been undertaken in the past against the bishops of Kigali and Kabgayi, the newspaper recalled.

"The campaign to discredit and decapitate the Church," comments Marcel, "is nothing short of Satanic."

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