The Kabgayi site is located in Southern Province. Click on the image for a slideshow of photographs.All photographs © 2002-2008 Jens Meierhenrich.

Christianity held a presence in Rwanda almost a century prior to the 1994 genocide. The first missionaries—pères blancs, or White Fathers—crossed over the border into Rwanda from Burundi in 1899 with a caravan of 150 porters, protected by armed guards and toting an “extraordinary mixture of seeds, liturgical paraphernalia, agricultural implements and books,” according to historian Ian Linden. Their first encounter with royalty at Nyanza, 18 miles south of the eventual Roman Catholic diocese of Kabgayi, was not welcoming, for the missionaries were presented with a load of goats when only cows represented a dignified gift. These pioneers were rightly perceived as a threat to the indigenous cult of Lyangombe, which was mediated by Tutsi rulers, as Linden notes in Church and Revolution in Rwanda.

By the 1930s, however, the Church had fully aligned itself with the political elite and, through its religious activities and important role in education, it contributed to hardening ethnic boundaries between Hutu and Tutsi, at first favoring the Tutsi, then after 1959 the Hutu ( with exceptions). In 1952 the first black Roman Catholic bishop in what was then part of Belgian Africa (comprising Rwanda, Burundi, and the present Democratic Republic of the Congo) was consecrated here at Kabgayi, 25 miles east of the capital city, Kigali. During the 1994 genocide, at least 35,000 people are said to have converged here. In mid-April of that year, the Rwandan government’s elite troops known as the Presidential Guard lurked about, remembered theologian Andre Sibomana.

Then as the civil war progressed the power balance seems to have switched: in June 1994 the resident bishop, Thaddée Nsengiyumva, was murdered along with the archbishop, a second bishop, and ten priests, allegedly by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), leading Pope John Paul II on June 9 to deplore the murders and appeal to Rwandans for peace. According to Sibomana, the RPF allegedly murdered “hundreds” of peasants here on June 19.

When in the aftermath of the genocide Sibomana began to administer the diocese in November 1994, he found the situation “catastrophic.” In Hope for Rwanda, he was quoted as saying, “Everything had to be rebuilt, all at the same time, without any resources. Eighteen out of eighty-seven priests had been killed, including the bishop, the vicar-general, the head bursar, the rector and the director of studies; many were in exile. We had to rebuild everything including minds and bodies, public buildings, houses, families [...]. The diocese of Kabgayi is not only the biggest in Rwanda, it also had the largest number of inhabitants. An investigation in December 1994 estimated that it had 680,000 inhabitants—around 10 percent of the population of Rwanda.”

The role of the Church in Rwanda’s genocide was complex and remains highly controversial; and though visitors who broach questions at Kabgayi are sternly invited to move along, an official inquiry into violence at Kabgayi under the auspices of Rwanda’s so-called gacaca jurisdictions commenced on September 30, 2008.

Copyright © 2010 Jens Meierhenrich. All rights reserved.