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Day 1: Reinventing Theology in Post-Genocide Rwanda

Conference on post-genocide Rwanda

By Julia Bloechl and Leah Bacon

On 20 June 2019 the conference titled “Reinventing Theology in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Challenges and Hopes” convened at Centre Christus in Kigali. Distinguished speakers traveled from Africa, Europe, and the United States and guests were welcomed by the conveners of the conference Marcel Uwineza, S.J and Elisée Rutagambwa, S.J.

The keynote address was given by Mgr. Antoine Kambanda, who spoke on “The Role of the Church in the Process of Reconciliation in Rwanda.” He began by noting that before 1994, Catholicism in Rwanda was flourishing as 62 percent of the population identified as Catholic. After the genocide, preaching in Rwanda became more complex. On this note, Mgr. Kambanda began to discuss the nature of the genocide and suggested that it was particularly unique because it pitted neighbor against neighbor, therefore destroying previously strong notions of community and unity. He proposed that there were two particularly important roles for the church post-genocide: to assist in the burying of the dead and the importance of instituting Gacaca Nkiristu (Christian Gacaca). In this process, communities were brought together to share stories of suffering, and individuals were asked to listen with compassion and work towards forgiveness. Healing and reconciliation were central themes to Mgr. Kambanda’s talk as they embody the main principles of the Gospel. He posed a thought-provoking question: “when you look at your neighbor, what do you see first – the image of God or ethnic difference?” In essence, one must reconcile with God, then reconcile with oneself and each other.

Next, Mgr. Smaragde Mbonyitege, bishop of Kabgayi Diocese, spoke on “Priestly Formation in Post-Genocide Rwanda.” He discussed the role of the church in bringing alive cultural tradition and providing refuge for people who are suffering. He noted the high rates of men who continue to enter the clergy. When discussing victims of the genocide, he stated that many victims were not even aware of being victims. This suggests that many Rwandese felt the consequences of the genocide without ever knowing that it was the root of their sufferings. Finally, he advocated two areas in which change must be achieved: first, social and political contexts should not be as divisive and second, he suggested that those entering the priesthood should not be deterred by the struggles of those who served before them. Mgr. Smaragde closed by advising that we should not forget but we must move forward.

The final speaker of the first panel was Mgr. Philippe Rukamba, the President of Rwanda’s Episcopal Conference, whose talk was entitled, “Catholic Education in Post-Genocide Rwanda.” He began by discussing the history of education in Rwanda, playing particular attention to the differences between colonial and post-colonial systems. He then discussed the role of religion in education and praised the practice of providing religious education in Rwandan schools. Mgr. Rukamba emphasized the deep destruction of educational institutions during the genocide and emphasized that the rebuilding of the education system was deeply dependent upon the church.

Similarly, beginning the second panel, Therese Mukabaconda, discussed education in her presentation of “Rwanda: 25 Years After the Genocide Against the Tutsi: Reconstruction and Reconciliation are not a Utopia.” She argued that education can be an instrument for stabilization and establishment of solidarity. Then she discussed the ethnic quota system that existed in schools before the genocide before being abolished after 1994. Her discussion focused on the need for schools to provide comprehensive and unifying education to those children born or educated post-genocide, which is instrumental in maintaining unity and preventing future tensions. Next, Mih Bibiana Mbei Dighambong’s talk, “A Holistic Approach to Post-Genocide Challenges and the Importance of Visionary Leadership by Women,” showcased the imperative roles of women during and after the genocide. After genocide, women often became heads of households, played key roles in peacemaking, promoted positive socio-economic programs, and much more. Bibiana highlighted the fact that all of these things were accomplished by women despite the fact that they often faced some of the most devastating atrocities of the genocide (sexual violence, harassment, loss of families, etc.) Her talk promoted the consideration of how a society more inclusive of women would be beneficial for all members. Finally, Marie Clair Gatayire followed this with a powerful testament to the experiences of genocide survivors. She highlighted some of the networks that promote the well-being of survivors. She also placed deep emphasis on what are known as “artificial families,” which are composed of individuals who lost loved ones to the genocide and reconstituted a family premised on principles of love and mutual support

The third panel encompassed Magesa, Hollenbach, and O’Neill. Laurenti Magesa’s, S.J talk “Learning from a Tragedy: Toward a New Evangelization after the Genocide in Rwanda” focused on the failures of the church and suggested three ways in which it must move forward. First, the church must admit its mistakes in both commission and omission. Second, the church should recognize how, when, and why it reacted as it did during the genocide. Finally, it must propose concrete models for a new evangelization in the process of reconciliation. David Hollenbach’s, S.J presented on “Remembering Shared Humanity in a Divided World: Human Rights and Protection from Atrocity” and highlighted the importance of the United Nation’s principle of Responsibility to Protect. This principle emphasizes the need for nations to care for their members and, if they fail, for other nations to intervene. He promoted the idea of the international community and the Catholic Church as providing grounds for ensuring universal justice. Lastly, William O’Neill, S.J. passionately concluded with a discussion on “Remembering Genocide: Anamnestic Solidarity in Social Reconciliation.” He spoke on the insufficiency of allowing the guarantee of liberty to be the sole center of a moral system. He noted that in order to properly make sense of the past, one must root memory in both understandings of Catholic social teaching and African history. Ultimately, eliciting sentiments of solidarity and human rights.

The final panel began with lawyer Florida Kabasinga’s presentation on “The Role of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda: Justice and Legal Perspectives,” in which she emphasized the shortcomings of the ICTR. In particular, she noted that Rwandese were displeased with the tribunal not being in Rwanda and that the worst punishment possible would not be death. She suggested that the ICTR was a form of “distant justice” in which those most directly touched by the genocide were unable to be part of the justice process. Leah Bacon concluded the conference with research titled “Construction of Collective Memory: An Analysis of Rwanda’s Memorials.” She compared various memorials in Rwanda with the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C, USA. She emphasized that museums are never “neutral” agencies, but should serve as spaces for reconciliation, reflection, and healing. One must ask who the memorials seek to serve and how they do so.

The first day of the conference was a great success and the next two days are sure to bring continued deepening of insights alongside prayerful reflection.

Source: Rwanda-Burundi Region (RWB)