While selling dried fish at her stall at Kimironko Market in Kigali, Rwanda, Therese Mukabunane recounted how hundreds of desperate residents of her hometown of Gikongoro died at the hands of priests and nuns during the genocide of 1994 in which more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutu extremists.

“The priests, who were of the Hutu ethnicity, called us cockroaches and refused us food and water,” said the 52-year-old mother of four, who is a Tutsi. “They delivered people who had taken refuge in their parishes to Hutu extremists to be massacred. Some of us were lucky not to be murdered, but we were raped and seriously injured.

“I no longer trust priests and other church leaders,” said Mukabunane, who was born and raised a Catholic. “They abandoned us when we needed them most. Their words were full of hate. They had no respect for human life.

In addition to killing hundreds of thousands of people, the Rwandan genocide strained relations between the Rwandan government and the Vatican. In 2016, the country’s bishops apologized for the role of priests in the genocide, and Pope Francis asked for forgiveness in 2017.

But 27 years later, the Catholic Church in this East African country has stepped up its campaign to preach peace and help victims of the genocide and reconcile Hutus and Tutsis.

Cardinal Antoine Kambanda of Kigali, whose family was killed during the genocide while studying in Rome, said the church has initiated dialogues where communities are allowed to voice their grievances, forgive each other and each other. reconcile as a means of healing and building relationships. .

“Much has happened during this genocidal period, and it takes the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ marked by forgiveness and mercy to rebuild our country,” said the cardinal at the end of July. “The church must continue to preach peace and reconciliation to improve peaceful coexistence between communities. “

In Nyamata parish, about 32 km south of Kigali, where some 50,000 people died in the genocide, Father Emmanuel Nsengiyumva offers counseling programs and a nine-month program on reconciliation. The perpetrators are allowed to acknowledge their wickedness and ask forgiveness from survivors and victims, he said, adding that survivors are encouraged to forgive and welcome the perpetrators into their communities.

“We want to free people so that they can live in peace and love each other,” said Father Nsengiyumva, who was only 18 when the massacre began. He said he had lost two of his brothers. “We seek to ensure that all perpetrators and survivors of the genocide who lost hope and their shattered dreams get it back. “

Some parishes are helping genocide survivors, especially women and their children, by setting up small businesses for women and helping children access education.

Catechist José Ishimwe from the diocese of Gikongoro said that every Sunday during mass, priests spend some of their homilies preaching on peace and reconciliation. He said the priests visited the families of the victims and survivors to support them emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and financially.

Ishimwe said the goal of outreach has always been to improve the image of the church, as many of those who sought refuge in Catholic parishes during the genocide lost confidence and left the church for other Christian denominations. As a result, since the late 1990s, the church’s population has grown from over 50% to 43% of the Rwandan population.

However, Ishimwe noted that more than 200 priests and nuns were allegedly massacred while trying to save the Tutsi.

“We will never allow genocide to happen again in our country,” said Ishimwe, who escaped the massacre and took refuge in Burundi before returning in 1998. “We forgave each other through reconciliation and we have moved on. to something else. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have turned enemies into friends, and they now live side by side and help each other as neighbors.

Diane Munezero, a 48-year-old mother of three who survived the genocide by hiding in the bush for several weeks before being rescued by soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, told Catholic News Service: “We are happy in as survivors because the church took responsibility for the role they played during the massacre. They talk about it now and bring people together. It brings healing to our hearts, and we are now able to forgive the church and the priests who participated in the massacre.

Some Rwandans, however, cannot forgive. Survivors have continually accused the Vatican of helping certain priests and nuns escape justice by giving them asylum in European countries.

Some remain angry that the Vatican promoted Archbishop Thaddée Ntihinyurwa to archbishop of Kigali in 1996, despite accusations that he removed at least 600 people from a parish and led them to a football stadium, where Hutu militiamen took them out. massacred. Yet, as Archbishop of Kigali, he helped enable discussion of reconciliation and ethnic tensions in preparation for the 2000 Jubilee. A Rwandan gacaca court on the genocide interviewed Archbishop Ntihinyurwa in 2005. He retired in 2018.