The Genocide against the Tutsi, and the Rwandan Churches

The question of the churches’ response to mass violence or mass oppression has been raised in many contexts. Think of the debate on Pope Pius XII’s silence on the Holocaust. Or of the delayed (though eventually rather strong) response of the churches to apartheid. Philippe Denis’ book The Genocide against the Tutsi, and the Rwandan Churches is about the response or lack of it to the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

One speaks of a genocide when a government, an army or a militia intentionally exterminates a group of people or part of it for religious, political, ideological or any other reason. This is exactly what happened in Rwanda between April and July 1994. The exact number of victims is not known and not all were Tutsi. One often gives the figure of 800,000. There is a consensus on the fact that three-quarters of the Tutsi residing in Rwanda in April 1994 were hunted to death and slaughtered. This is an enormous figure. Added to that is the fact that tens of thousands of Tutsi women were raped. Only a fraction of the victims were Hutu. One can speak in their case of war crimes, not of a genocide.

Let us pause a moment. In Rwanda there are three groups of people (with some people belonging to two groups as a result of mixed marriages): the Hutu (perhaps 85% of the population), the Tutsi (perhaps 14-15%) and the Twa (1%). These groups are not ‘races’ as claimed in the colonial era. They are not even ethnic groups because they share the same culture, language and religion. But they have different histories. Historically, the Tutsi were under the authority of a certain mwami (king). Some of them (though not all) were better off socio-economically. Unfortunately, the colonial agents (German, then Belgian) and the missionaries messed up everything. They came up with the dubious theory that the Tutsi were strangers, coming from Egypt or Ethiopia; and were profoundly different because they were taller than the Hutu and looked a bit different physically in some cases. They were; they said, cattle-raisers as opposed to the Hutu who were pastoralists. This binary system and the jealousy and bitterness it engendered is at the root of the long list of massacres of Tutsi that punctuated Rwandan history since 1959 (just before the independence of Rwanda in 1962), culminating in the 1994 genocide.

The immediate cause of the genocide was the invasion, in October 1990, of Rwanda by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an army of Tutsi refugees based in Uganda since 1959 and the ensuing war which caused massive displacement of civilians and many deaths on both sides. The Tutsi were accused of being ‘accomplices’ of the FPR and were killed for that reason. The trigger was the shooting down of the plane transporting Juvénal Habyarimana, the Rwandan president, on 6 April 1994. The authors were almost certainly Hutu extremists who wanted to destabilise the country and take over the government.

The genocide ended when the FPR defeated the Rwandan army in mid-July 1994.  Nearly two million people, including many genocide perpetrators, fled to Tanzania and Zaire (today’s DRC) where they remained until late 1996. The churches were divided, with some parts of them in the camps and others remaining in Rwanda. Low intensity warfare continued until the early 2000s. The authorities who had planned, actively supported or condoned the genocide never apologised. Instead, they denied all responsibility, accusing, against all evidence, the FPR of having also perpetrated a genocide. That is what is called the ‘double genocide theory’. Quite a few church people, including missionaries, still support this theory today.

The churches, and the Catholic Church, the oldest and the biggest confession, in particular, were deeply affected by the genocide. They lost hundreds of mostly Tutsi priests, pastors and religious men or women. Many massacres took place in churches. A non-negligible number of Hutu people, and among them many Christians, took risks to save Tutsi lives.  Some were killed as a result. Yet the churches, Catholic as well as Protestant, bear a responsibility in the genocide for having failed to denounce it. Closely linked to the Rwandan government since the time of independence, they merely called the warring parties to a ceasefire without saying a word on the systematic extermination of Tutsi people which was taking place before their eyes. A fair amount of Hutu priests and pastors – a few dozen, if not more – directly and personally assisted the killers. Some were convicted of genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha.

The issue of the churches’ responsibility in the genocide against the Tutsi has been the object of an ongoing debate since 1994. There are dozens of testimonies, blogs, newspaper articles and other forms of ‘grey literature’ attacking the churches or on the contrary, defending them. Strangely, until the publication of Denis’ book, with one or two exceptions there were no academic studies, based on archives and oral history interviews, as if the subject was taboo. The exceptions are a book by the American political scientist Timothy Longman which is very good but is focused on two parishes of the Presbyterian Church and ends the enquiry in 1995. One can also mention a long article, well informed, by Paul Rutayisire, a Rwandan historian, on the Catholic Church and the genocide. Denis’ book covers a longer period (1990-2000) with a detailed analysis of the response of two churches, the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church, to the genocide. He consulted a wide range of archives and interviewed close to 100 people, genocide survivors but also Hutu priests and activists, some of them in exile, and missionaries. Denis does not only look at what happened before and during the genocide but at the manner in which these two churches – at the level of the leadership, the clergy and the parishioners – recognised or on the contrary denied, the reality of the genocide against the Tutsi in the years following the genocide.


Philippe Denis is Senior Professor in History of Christianity at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is the founder and presently a Board member of the Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa and an associate member of the Royal Academy of Belgium.

The Genocide against the Tutsi, and the Rwandan Churches
by Philippe Denis
9781847012906, Hardcover, £42 or $59.40

Special offer valid until 31 March, 2022.

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