Former U.N. commander in Rwanda speaks on Church’s role in genocide

CHESTNUT HILL — In 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed during a campaign of violence that lasted three months. The bloodshed continued, with little interference from the outside world except for the acts of those such as Canadian lt. general Romeo Dallaire, commander of the U.N. forces in Rwanda at the time, who attempted to call attention to the atrocities. On Nov. 30 at Boston College, Dallaire spoke of his experience in Rwanda and what the Church should have done to help stop the killing.

Hundreds turned out for Dallaire’s talk entitled “The Role of the Church in the Rwandan Genocide.” The genocide began when the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down above Kigali airport in April 1994. Habyarimana, who was killed in the crash, was a Hutu. The assassination touched off a massive wave of killing during which ethnic Hutus who dominated Rwan-da’s power structure murdered tens of thousands of ethnic Tutsis.

Dallaire, the author of “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda,” criticized the U.N. and major countries such as the United States for not stopping the genocide. The U.N. forces withdrew after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were captured and murdered.

He suggested that racism was to blame for the lack of global action. Dallaire noted that the world stepped in to restore order when a civil war erupted in Yugoslavia. When he asked for troops to stop the killing in Rwanda, “developed countries” turned their backs, he said. This “created a pecking order of humanity — those who count and those who do not.”

Troops from Belgium, France and Italy were sent to Rwanda, not to keep the peace, but to “evacuate the white people and not the black people,” he said. “I couldn’t keep 400 troops on the ground and I got absolutely no support.”

“There is not one human more human than the other,” said Dallaire, who at one point defied orders from the secretary general to withdraw his troops saying he couldn’t abandon the more than 20,000 civilians in areas under U.N. control.

The Church also failed to act in Rwanda, which was primarily Catholic, said Dallaire. The Church hierarchy there sided with the extremist politicians and some priests and religious have even been accused of actively assisting the militias, he continued. Churches, which became hideouts for Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were often the sites of bloody massacres.

“We lost an incredible capability once the genocide started because of the fact that the Church aligned itself with the interim genocide government,” Dallaire stated. “If we had had support in the churches we could have created pockets of resistance that could have helped gain international support, could have goaded some of the world powers to give us another look.”

He said because of the failure of the Catholic Church, some Rwandans have converted to Protestant denominations and Islam. According to some estimates, the growth of Islam has doubled since the genocide.

“A lot of the leadership of the Church in Rwanda has been decimated — three bishops and 17 priests were killed because of their collaboration with the extremist movement,” Dallaire said.

“The escalation of the Evangelical movement and the Islamic church is making significant in-roads there.”

In order to be effective at maintaining peace in the future, “the role of the Church must be one of progressive thinking and leadership and not one of being a conservative bastion of society, which causes significant differences,” he said. “‘Love thy neighbor’ didn’t stand up in the Rwandan genocide, will ‘love thy neighbor’ stand up to the political, security and economic challenges we face in the future?”

“The Church can be an instrument of reconciliation or an instrument of division,” Dallaire continued. “It can’t be an instrument of conservatism, it must be open.”

The archdiocesan Ethnic Apostolate Office cosponsored the event with Boston College because he is an “outstanding humanitarian witness,” said director Sister Nancy Charles-worth, SSMN.

Sister Nancy sees the role of the Church as complex saying, “In many places in the world, the hierarchy in the Church supports the governing power. The Church needs to be the sustainer of order.”

“It is not its role to be rabble-rousers or to change the government but, as general Dallaire said, the society needs the Church. This is seen clearly in third world countries where the Church, next to the government, is the next important structure of power,” she continued. “The Church actively needs to work for unity and reconciliation between the two ethnic groups. The society also needs and is trying to work toward that.”