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Religion’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide


The Rwandan genocide tragically represents the capacity of violence in humanity. One common speculation made as an accusation by the current Rwandan State is whether religion and religious leaders, in fact, had any influence in the 1990 Rwanda genocide. Evidence that articulates public opinions increasingly indicates that the presence of religion, especially Christianity activities from the Roman Catholic Church, played a crucial role in the possibility of the genocide. It was the cause of the political and ethical constellation that instigated the 1994 genocide. Without Christianity and Churches, the Rwandan genocide would never have happened. This article seeks to provide a comprehensive summary of the role religion, precisely Christianity, played in the Rwandan genocide. It will extensively answer questions like to what degree churches were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Did the Christian churches have a role in actively influencing the ethnic and political realms in Rwanda, making the genocide feasible and possible? Does the Church’s culpability lie in the mere thought of sin of passivity, in the acts of the few members of the Church?


According to Fertitta 4, Rwanda’s genocide occurred for decades in small amounts of murder until it accumulated to a full-blown slaughter in 1994. Within 100 days in 1994, in an African country called Rwanda, approximately 1 000,000 people were killed, including the elderly, men, women, and even innocent young children. According to Linden 609, the Rwandan government and Hutu people participated in the unprecedented killing of its population. Most of the victims were Tutsi, representing 14% of the country’s population, and they were mostly perpetrated by Hutu, who represented 80% of the nation’s population. In most cases, the perpetrators used ordinary household equipment as a machete as a weapon. On rare occasions, when nationals sought refuge in overcrowded public places like schools and churches, they were slaughtered by militias using grenades and bulldozing. Nevertheless, several researchers have identified numerous factors that played essential roles in leading to the genocide. But one question remains, what logical explanation accounts for these inhumane deeds done by human beings against innocent people during the genocide?

Inevitably, in the aftershock of this crisis, many attempted to fathom the influence of religion. One popular speculation by the present political Rwanda regime questions whether religion had any role that made the 1994 genocide feasible and possible. The reason behind this speculation is that the tragic genocide took place in plain sight of those who were teaching and professing religious mythologies and were expected to value human life and fight for what was right as required by the Bible. A study by Fertitta 4 Found that during the tragic genocide, one out of five people from religious institutions were perpetrators. As a result of these saddening statistics, the Church has received criticism from many people and institutions. It has been blamed for the inhumane violence during those three months. Although many argue that religion did not play a part in the tragic Rwandan genocide, I believe religion is more to blame for its harmful role in fuelling the genocide. This thesis demonstrates that Christian Churches were deeply implicated in the Rwandan genocide through their religious mythology and influence to devalue human life.

Role of the Church in the Rwandan Genocide

The Rwandan genocide represents the inhumane capacity of violence among human beings and the international community institutions’ shortcomings in protecting innocent lives (Linden 610). It also highlights how institutional programs such as the Church that are supposed to value human life can be easily influenced and corrupted. To understand the influence of religion in the Rwandan genocide, one must carefully skilful the roles churches played in the tragic events of 1994, the decades of ethnic intolerance history in the country, and the developments that caused the 1994 unfortunate tragedy. Since Rwanda’s colonial period, there have been troublesome relationships between the religious institutions and the government of Rwanda.

Belgium’s Influence and Ethnic Discrimination

To better understand the fundamental role performed by the Church in the genocide, we must first set basic grounds for how the Church and religion were introduced into Rwanda and how it actively developed racial frameworks attributed to the tragic genocide. After the agreement to end the World War in 1918, regions captured by Germany in Africa were divided among allies. Around early 1923, Rwanda became a Belgium colony. Belgium was widely known for its predominant Catholic religious influence in Rwanda. In 1961, Rwanda became gained its independence after the 1959 national revolution. The independence put Hutus as the Rwandan government. During this leadership, the Hutus sent many Tutsis to exile, which caused the deaths of approximately 8000 Tutsis by the Rwandan government (Linden 609). Those who succeeded in finding refuge in neighbouring countries remained in exile until the early 1990s. Before Belgium occupied Rwanda, it was ruled by a Tutsi even though they were the minority population in the country. After Belgium acquired Rwanda, profiling Hutu and Tutsi’s physical and cultural characteristics emerged. Many singled out Tutsi for their light skin, height, and dietary habits. This consensus promoted misleading assumptions that caused the deaths of many Hutus who were mistaken to be Tutsi in the 1994 massacre (Linden 611). Belgium’s colonization divided Tutsi and Hutu into strict classifications, resulting in an unbalanced Rwandan society as Tutsi fell in the high social class because of their leader. The king later converted to Christianity, specifically Catholicism, which eventually made Rwanda a predominantly Christian nation. Belgium’s Christianity influence destroyed Rwandan cultural beliefs and values, bringing more unrest into the country. The once classification that once indicated economic status started promoting racial discrimination, further dividing people depending on their skin colour, height, and nose size.

Notably, Rwandan religious institutions did not work as the primary identity organizers. Rather, the Church was responsible for defining and integrating lines between the nation’s ethnicities. Unlike the massive violence in countries like Sudan and Lebanon, the Rwandan massacre was not a result of differentiating lines and perspectives between religious groups (Torbett 530). In most cases, these ethnic definitions would be deemed negligible. However, due to colonization and the introduction of Christianity, ethnicity became a significant issue in the Rwandan community. Eventually, smaller amounts of killings occurred by the regime based on this ethnic racialization, gradually leading to the 1994 genocide. In addition, some may argue that Christian missionaries did not develop racialized ethnicities. However, during Rwanda’s pre-colonial era, Tutsi and Hutu held no racialized importance to people. Rather, Tutsi and Hutu represented trans-ethnic groups that established community classifications on which the Rwandan society based their economic, social, and power status quo. Tutsi and Hutu were a single community united under a common language, tradition, culture, and beliefs. Both groups spoke a cultural language called Kinyarwanda.

While trying to understand the local organization of the Rwandan community, the first Christianity missionaries, often referred to as the White Fathers, developed their very own definition of identities that comprised race and ethnicity. Sure, the trans-ethnic identities that existed between the Tutsi and Hutu had societal categorization. However, Christian missionaries own definition of identity solidified this classification into rigid race and ethnic-based classifications (Fegley 189). Moreover, the missionaries used very misleading sociobiological approaches to local social classifications. In fact, the “Hamitic narrative” clearly indicates the missionaries’ racial interpretation of the local Rwandan society. According to Linden 611, the “Hamitic” narrative theorizes that the Hutu population in Rwanda descended certain physical aspects from the “Negroid” people. It also assumes that the Tutsi people descended from “Hamitic” people of “Caucasian” origin, who are distantly related to Europeans. The “Hamitic” narrative assumes that due to this theorized origins of the two groups, Hutu people were inferior to Tutsi. This bold yet misleading assumption enabled and promoted the growth of these harmful sentiments of ethnic crystallization among the populations of Rwanda, which later encouraged growing hate between Hutus and Tutsis, eventually instigating Hutus to kill the Tutsis (Torbett 530). Although this racialization from the White Fathers Christian missionaries is a less immediate factor in the history of the 1994 genocide, it still established a strong premise for the nation’s mass killings.

Church Silence Spoke Volumes on their Stand

As already noted, race and ethnic crystallization from the first Christian Church is insufficient evidence to assess religion’s role in the terrific Rwandan massacre. To better understand the dynamics and engagement of Christian Churches in the genocide, it is key to highlight more immediate factors. Evidently, over the decades, ‘ Churches became silent as they stood by watching political powers in doing evil and unethical things, even worse, killing innocent people (Fegley 189). With the help of two Christian missionaries, a group of politically powerful Hutu people demanded a solution to the crystalized ethnic discrimination that made them inferior to Tutsis. Through the Manifesto of Buhutu, this group of elites blamed Belgium for the unrest in their country. It demanded the contemporary practice of showing if a citizen was Rwanda’s Twa, Tutsi, or Hutu to be re-established into society (Torbett 530). After this manifesto passed, the Tutsi people, who, as already noted above, comprised the smallest parentage of the country’s population, were overpowered by Hutus. In 1959, the Belgium government, with the influence of influential Church leaders, incited the Tutsis and Hutu. The Tutsi king was removed from his throne by the Belgium government, and Rwanda got their first-ever President, Mr Gregorie Kayibanda. The government killed many Tutsis to gain more power as many targeted people sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

Even though it seems like Hutus had more political power in the Rwandan government, Tutsis remained powerful in the Church realms. Tutsis represented almost 95% of the clergy members or priests (Fegley 188). The Tutsi priest remained in control of Catholic schools. However, in 1955, the Hutu government nationalized all Catholic schools making the Tutsi lose control of the Church realm. This coerced priests and other members of the clergy to remain silent if they still wanted to serve and practising their faith in the country. Regrettably, their reluctance to fight back and silence essentially enabled the 1994 genocide. Soon after World War Two, progressive Flemish missionaries moved to Rwanda and were concerned about the extreme poverty affecting the Hutu community. By the early 70s, the Churches started making progressive changes to the Hutu population. The Hutu complained of unfair education and employment system, as Tutsis took the largest portion of schools and jobs. Through the Flemish missionaries’ influence, Hutu students started posting flyers telling every Tutsi or suspected student and staff to leave school (Fegley 189). Hundreds of Tutsi people left their jobs and studies and went into hiding or left Rwanda in fear of violence and retaliation from the Hutu government.

During this particular period, the Roman Catholic Church depicted that it was deeply participating in the state’s racial and ethnic politics. For instance, Bishops and priests from the Vatican started to condemn ethnic discrimination (Fegley 190). However, the State used retaliation to silence them. The government replaced the Tutsi Monsignor as the seminary head and put a Hutu soldier in his place. In fact, church leadership moved from Tutsi to Hutu, and consequentially, no Hutu held an authoritative position in Church again until after the genocide. After the government silenced the Catholic Church through retaliation, criticism came only from individual church leaders. Several priests spoke out against the merciless killing of the Tutsi people and requested the Catholic Church to fight against the ethnic quotas and other dysfunctionalities of the government (Torbett 530). However, the Church remained silent and stood on the sidelines, even with millions of Tutsis dying and sympathizers being exiled.

Other Churches also remained silent and encourage the massacre, not only the Catholic Church. Presbyterians and Anglican churches only spoke about the government’s corrupt systems but never addressed the ethnic abuse causing hundreds of deaths (Torbett 530). The silence from Churches was translated that they consented to the killings and that religion did not condemn the evils being done by the government. To make matters worse, it was well known that the Catholic Church leaders such as the Rwandan dioceses Bishop, had blood ties with the Rwandan President. Gradually these ties between religious leaders and political regimes became extremely entwined that the Church started to conspire with the government or turn a blind eye to evil instead of fighting for equality and unity for every person in Rwanda (Fegley 189). Due to the close ties, in 1976, even as many Churches flourished and gained status quo again, the Church’s spiritual faith started to disappear. And worse, the Catholic Church moved from Kabgayi to Kigali to further conspire with the government, further deteriorating the Church’s moral integrity of religion.

Power struggles

From the colonial era till the genocide, the Church has had a role when it comes to political and social power struggles. The Church was actively involved in the struggles and was deeply incorporated into the Rwandan power structure (Simonsson 248). The Rwandan Catholic Church was a multi-layered group, with powerful clergy members developing and maintaining close relationships with well-known powerful politicians and business figures. Locally, priests and pastors were closely linked to local authorities as many worked in administrative roles in the prefecture council. Other Church leaders were popular public figures; hence they were regularly linked to the national level with the government in command (Simonsson 248). An example of their representation at the national level is Vincent Nsengiyumva, a Kigali Archbishop. Before Rwandan President Habyarimana’s assassination, Archbishop Vincent was habitually seen alongside the President in public events. The Archbishop played the role of the President’s wife personally and often participated in the Revolutionary National Movement for Development (MRND) committee. For almost ten years, MRND reinforced racist policies that majorly attributed to the 1994 massacre, and the Archbishop was an active member contributing to murder and degrading human life.

Furthermore, Church leaders from the Anglican and Baptist Churches were also deeply incorporated with the elite, hazardous ruling through personal friendship or blood-related to the political authorities (Simonsson 248). Notably, this complex and heavily layered relationship between Churches and political parties resulted in a greedy need and desire to gain maximum profits and power for involved parties. While the state authorities oversaw the methods of increasing the social status and wealth of the members of the clergy, Church leaders used their popular influence to lure citizens into submission to support governmental actions and further oppress the country’s opposition party, encouraging a corrupted and discriminatory political regime. Nevertheless, maintaining a high social status in society was extremely important among Church officials as they received massive privileges from powerful political actors (Simonsson 248). In the late 80s, the powerful yet harmful close personal friendship between Church leaders, politicians, and popular business figures collapsed. During the 1980s, Churches in Rwanda developed deeper roots in social struggles and became an essential element for an energetic civil society.

According to Simonsson 249, church organizational changes, liberation theologies, and the uprising of the new church-related institutions enabled democracy-related notions to sip and further spread in Rwandan churches. Democratization started because of a group of people operating within and outside the Churches in Rwanda. This network of people aimed to protest against the failing unfair power structure in every Church and local realm in the country was founded on. The malleable group, actively operating in the late 80s and the early 90s, put significant pressure on political powers and religious leaders. Many of the church population, aware of the fraudulent system of power influences between the government and religious leaders, began to speculate and contest against both powers (Simonsson 247). They contested corruption and voracity. The protests and constant contests gradually caused conflict between democrats and conformists within several religions, especially the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. The disputes were heavily politicized.

Almost every clergy member involved in this dysfunctional power structure responded to these protests using violence and repression. Eventually, this conflict led to genocide vis-à-vis. Genocide vis-à-vis is a reformation and democratization process within religious institutions and outside secular structures (Simonsson 248). Nevertheless, most clergies restrained from associating with the regime to preserve the numerous privileges and profits they gained over the past decades. As a result of the clergy sustaining the need to maintain their privilege and prestige and the conflicts within individual churches, a massive crisis emerged in Churches’ power structures. In fact, these conditions are key to helping us comprehend the deep involvement of religion in the 1994 Rwandan Massacre.

Involvement in the Slaughters

Prior to the killings in 1994, a group called Hutu Power, comprising government officials and militia, emerged to kill Tutsis. These Hutus believed that Tutsis were inferior and deserved to die. As the media encourage the killing of Tutsis, anybody who did not support Hutu Powers’ plans and decisions of publicly killing Tutsis was deemed an enemy and was first to be brutally murdered. While many Tutsis approached Hutu Power begging for mercy, they were told to go to Church for protection, a place they were made to believe was safe. However, upon following this advice, the Rwandan Tribunal shows that most people killed during the genocide were in churches or on church grounds. According to Fertitta 4, Church was also a significant victim of the 1994 mass killing, with more than 200 priests and nuns killed. Conversely, several Rwandan genocide survivors insist that many priests and nuns were killers. They say many priests had guns and carelessly shot innocent people, and others bulldozed churches full of innocent people seeking refuge, crushing them to death. Fertitta 4 states that one witness of the genocide confessed that the Church was heavily involved in killing innocent people. The witness uses the example of Father Rutihunza, who slaughtered Tutsi disabled children in the Gatagara Handicapped Centre. Survivors know that in early 1990 the government used propaganda and religious influence to force and instil fear in people so they could submit to them. They also believe that before the genocide, on April 7th, 1994, deliberate speeches were broadcasted to instigate Hutus to slaughter Tutsis to avenge for the murder of the President.

In addition, some priests and nuns might not have shot or bulldozed people, but they were still killers as they had little value for human life and lured innocent souls seeking safety to early deaths. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda indicates over 300 priests, nuns, and a protestant leader were found guilty of slaughtering Tutsi people (Fertitta 6). For instance, Emmanuel Rukundo, a Catholic priest and Hutu extremist, showed soldiers who proceeded to slaughter lives where people were hiding in a nearby seminary. Witnesses state that on four occasions, Rukundo had betrayed the trust of Tutsi people looking for refuge and safety by directing soldiers to the hiding spots (Fertitta 6). Likewise, Father Wenceslas Munyashyaka provided safety to almost 8000 people seeking refuge, but he later hand-picked people to be killed and commanded the Hutu militia to kill them. A witness, Bampiriye, states that she recalls Munyashyaka also handing several girls to Hutu militia to rape them. According to Fertitta 4, the Rwanda Christian institutions were heavily influenced by political parties and powers. He also states that religion was fundamentally a racially constructed institution that targeted Tutsi people. These few accounts of history show that the Church, more precisely the Catholic Church, failed to condemn the wrongful killings. It also played a significant role in legalizing the government’s unethical and illegal actions in the eyes of unsuspecting citizens. The Christian Church created a regular toxic habit of encouraging and luring people to submit and follow governmental authority.

Evidently, the Church seems to have rendered the Hutu governmental action moral and also perceived that the massacres of the rest of the population were ethical. Historian Doris Bergen responsible for the extensive study on the role of the Church in the Holocaust, asserted that Christianity plays a vital function in influencing top decision-makers in politics to make comprehensive and tolerable decisions. According to Doris’s research, the Holocaust by Nazi Germany parallels the 1994 Rwandan genocide (Van’t Spijker 340). Perpetrators and genocide survivors of both massacres made similar sentiments about what led them to act how they did. When questioned why they killed innocent people, many who were tried for their crimes in Rwanda often argued that ordinary and clueless human beings felt pressure to please those in authority. Therefore, using religion as a positive influence to provide comfort and safety to people, they lured crowds to their unfortunate deaths (Van’t Spijker 341). Furthermore, Rwanda is an extremely Christian nation. Almost 70% of its population assumed that the blood shed by Tutsi was in accordance with the teaching of the Church and that it was right in the eye of God. Many believed that God had abandoned the Tutsi people because they had sinned; therefore, they were deceived to die. Moreover, data gathered by Fertitta 4 from the Rwandan tribunal reflected how many killing squads could attend mass services and kneel before the Lord. For instance, Fertitta 4 indicates that Timothy Longman collected several disturbing testimonies from local ecclesiastics narrating how death squads could prey on the Tutsis and commit massive murders even at the foot of the same altars, then later go to Church to pray. These testimonies also depict how they would also bomb overcrowded churches not because they disrespected their faith in the Lord but rather because of discrimination and politics.

Rwandan Religion after the Genocide

After the genocide aftershock, some Church sympathizers started to depict the Church in Rwanda as a fragile establishment unable to challenge political parties and power in the context of the massacre (Grant 195). However, this picture suggested is entirely wrong. It is possible that Church-state conflicts existed, and religion could have hypothetically opposed the mass killings. However, neglecting this possibility would be a significant miscalculation that would misconstrue the link between Christianity and State in Rwanda and forgo the significant independent privilege Churches enjoyed. Churches in Rwanda held major power in the context of money and human capital. The Roman Catholic Church was the largest off-farm employer and massively offered social services, including basic needs distribution. It also managed health and educational facilities with extreme poverty and malnutrition cases all over the country (Grant 196). Nonetheless, the point I want to drive home is not that the Church could have solely prevented the genocide. But, it is to argue that the Church in Rwanda undoubtedly stood as the best-suited and powerful institution that could have challenged the systematic mass killing from happening. With such superior monetary and human capital power, Churches had obtained more than enough autonomy from the nation during colonization and post-colonization to enable them to try, if not stop, the killings.

Furthermore, a few years after the genocide, sympathizers of religion also opposed the notion that the Church played significant in the face of the slaughters by vehemently denying to take a universal responsibility as a church institution (Van’t Spijker 340). In 1996, Pope John Paul the Second affirmed that the Church could not take the blame for the wrongdoings of its few members that broke the evangelic law (Grant 194). In addition, the Rwandan Church claimed that the Church was one of the martyrs. However, they fail to consider the fact that during the Rwandan political tension leading to the genocide, many religious leaders developed systematic yet skilful and harmful initiatives to mediate between various political parties. These activities attracted and were supported by millions in many cities. Sympathizers assert that Church leaders were already active in human rights organizations and peace marches in early 1994 (Grant 195). They posited that neglecting such an essential role of the Church unbalances the accounts of history. However, the serious and direct effects of Churches in the genocide go beyond the actions of a few members of the Church. Therefore, whichever historical account a person adopts, it is undeniable that the attributions the Church in the genocide war is far from being beneficial to civil society.


In conclusion, Christian Church was deeply implicated in the unprecedented disaster of war and genocide in Rwanda and played a significant role in escalating the mass killing and violence in Rwanda. This essay has argued that religion is to blame for its passivity in context of the 1994 Rwandan massacre. Its guilt and harmful contribution do not stop at the actions of a few members of the clergy, but the Church at large is to blame as an entity. Ultimately, the Church could not independently stop the Rwandan genocide from taking place. However, as it was one of the largest and most powerful institutions in civil society, it had enough autonomy and influence to deviate from the course of events. The Church could have opposed the regime, created awareness, and pressurized international communities to intervene in the ongoing mass murders. Yet, it just stood by and often supported the unprecedented killings. Its reluctance, silence, and frequent participation have shown one massive failure of Christian ethics and the entire religious entity that professes and teaches the Lord’s word.


Linden, Ian. “Rwanda before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era by J. J. Carney.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 103, no. 3, 2017, pp. 609–611.,

Fegley, Randall. “Book Review: Rwanda before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era.” Genocide Studies and Prevention, vol. 12, no. 2, 2018, pp. 188–189.,

Simonsson, Olov. “Rwanda 1994.” The Routledge Handbook of Religion, Mass Atrocity, and Genocide, 2021, pp. 247–257.,

Torbett, David. “Carol Rittner, John K. Roth and Wendy Whitworth, Eds,Genocide in Rwanda: Complicity of the Churches?.” Political Theology, vol. 7, no. 4, 2006, pp. 529–532.,

Grant, Andrea Mariko. “Public Religion after Genocide.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 41, no. 2, 2021, pp. 194–204.,

Van’t Spijker, Gerard. “Religion and the Rwandan Genocide.” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, vol. 19, 2017, pp. 339–357.,

Fertitta, Mary M. “When Priests Forgot About God: An Analysis of the Catholic Church’s Role in Genocide.” The Kennesaw Journal of Undergraduate Research 7.1 2020: 4.


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