The seven most senior leaders of the Catholic Church in Rwanda have written to government asking that some of the genocide convicts be released or their sentences reduced as gesture, they say, which would reinforce national unity and reconciliation.
These clergy under the Episcopal Conference of Rwanda, including the new Archbishop of the Kigali Archdiocese, Antoine Kambanda, all signed on the letter which was sent on March 25. This was about two weeks before April 7, the start of the week-long 25th commemoration anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
In the 5-page “episcopal letter”, addressed to Catholic faithfuls, the seven men addressed various issues including the welfare of genocide survivors, which they say they are concerned about.
They also say that as part of the healing and reconciliation process, the Catholic Church has apologised for its role in the 1994 genocide. But they do not detail what exactly they did as an institution or as individuals.
The Episcopal Conference, also says it welcomes the continued engagement where genocide convicts have asked for forgiveness from the survivors, and they have been granted that forgiveness.
Numbers provided to The Chronicles by the Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS), show that there are 27,591 genocide convicts in prisons around Rwanda as of April 4 when we obtained them.
Among convicts, only 6,000 or 22.2% have asked for forgiveness, been forgiven by the survivors and both sides have reconciled. The process continues nearly every day.
The small number of those who have sought forgiveness shows that the vast majority of the genocide convicts remain hardcore, unmoved by what they did in 1994.
On page 4 of the letter of the Conference, is where the their most powerful message is.
“In a nutshell, the process for seeking forgiveness and granting it, is the only route through which to strengthen unity and reconciliation and healing the wounds that are still fresh,” says the Conference, adding; “For these people, we would like that they receive necessary support, to help them in their pain, to take then through the process of rebuilding their hope, most especially orphans and widowers.”
They added: “However, there those in prisons due to the crime of genocide against the Tutsi, including the elderly and those with various illnesses. These people must be supported, reducing their sentences could be an avenue; but they should also join the program of continuing to seek forgiveness and reuniting with those they wronged. We are saddened from hearing that there are still those who have been stigmatized by their families which no longer visit them. We thank Christians who continue to support them, and urge others not to abandon them.”
It is these two paragraphs that are going to cause a political and social storm across Rwanda.
The news about this letter first surfaced in local media on Wednesday. The Chronicles has exclusively obtained the letter and investigated the circumstances as what exactly transpired.
The letter was sent to all parishes of the Catholic Church and is only in the possession of the Bishops. No other person at every parish has access to the letter.
As a start, The Chronicles contacted Archbishop Filipo RUKAMBA, who is the head of the Conference. He told us that the letter was sent to all the Parishes and the Government, specifically the Ministry of Justice.
However, he said we can only access it from any parish. The Chronicles team went to St Famille here in Kigali. We were referred to the Bishop himself who is based at St Michel, also in Kigali. It is from him personally that we got the original copy of the letter.
Considering how important the messages it raises are, The Chronicles is publishing it in its entirety.
The Ministry of Justice, when contacted said it does not know the letter and has never received any such document.
The National Commission for the fight against Genocide (CNLG), which we found out from the Catholic Church that it was also given copy of the letter, said they have not seen any such document.
However, sources at both institutions who preferred anonymity, confirmed to us that the letter had been received by the highest officials.
The demand by the Church for some convicts to be pardoned may not be the first, but this current letter is first to be made public. However, it is unclear if their campaign had any impact on the decisions over the years, to release thousands of convicts.
President Paul Kagame has pardoned convicts at different times since 2003.
Data available shows that between 2003-2007, a total of 60,280 prisoners benefited from presidential pardon. Nearly all were genocide convicts, freed as part of efforts to support the reconciliation process and reduce prison overcrowding.
The data also shows that the element of age and ill health contributed heavily to the selection process of who was to be on the list.
Then on September 15, 2018, another 2,140 were given presidential clemency. Among them were genocide convicts, and other crimes including rowdy politician Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza and singer Kizito Mihigo.
Important to note from the letter of the episcopal conference, is that they repeatedly refer to the genocide as the “genocide against the Tutsi”, which comes after their leader Pope Francis apologised in March 2017.
The letter also becomes public after former Defence Minister Gen James Kabarebe, and currently Senior Advisor to the President, described the Catholic Church as a “state within a state”.
He said in a speech recently: “…I will say just what I believe. In this world there are all sorts of organizations, business organizations and very strong organizations. UN is an organization, Toyota is an organization, there are so many organizations in this world. The most organized and sophisticated organization in the world is the catholic church.”
“…Nobody will defeat it. You cannot fight the Catholic Church. It’s the most well organized institution in the world, so you cannot deal with it.”
Read the full letter of the Episcopal Conference of Rwanda below:
Reporting by Celestin Ndeyereyehe and Protais Mbarushimana