Monsignor Phillippe (Fillipo) Rukamba, the Bishop of Butare Diocese, in southern Rwanda, has been reelected to continue as the chair of the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church in Rwanda.
Mgr Rukamba was endorsed at the Conference’s end of year routine gathering held December 3-6. It was at same session that new leaders of the all-powerful body were elected.
The episcopal conference comprises the seven highest ranking Catholic clergy in the country. They guide the Church’s affairs on behalf of the Pope. The chair is the face out there interfacing with the ordinary Rwandan, the government and the world.
Rukamba, 71, has been at the helm of the episcopal conference since 2015, when he took over from Monsignor Smaragde Mbonyintege, the Bishop of Kabgayi Diocese in central Rwanda. Kabgayi is essentially the seat of the Church.
Rukamba’s tenure has witnessed some of the most challenging times for the Catholic Church in Rwanda. It is also during his time that its sour relationship with Government, and particularly the ruling RPF party, cooled a little.
On March 20, 2017, President Paul Kagame and the First Lady were hosted at the Vatican by Pope Francis. Kagame held private audience with the Pope, and the result was an apology for the Church’s role in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
It marked a huge turn of events from a terribly tumultuous relationship in which Kagame never shied from publicly outlining the Church’s role, that left the country in abyss. It is said the Church’s iconic cathedral in Kigali’s CBD was nearly put up for demolition. At the time, a key Bishop was facing genocide charges.
Monsignor Rukamba has also been at the center of the Church’s other storms. This year alone will never go off the Church’s records.
In April, as if the timing wasn’t that bad enough, the Monsignor Rukamba and his 6 colleagues signed on to a pastoral letter sent to all parishes and Government, in which they asked government to release genocide convicts.
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. The episcopal conference demanded that the sick and elderly be set free.
Except for reactions of seeming anger from low-level government officials, there was no comments from the highest levels. And of course, no reaction from what would have the Church’s biggest nightmare; from President Kagame or the ruling party.
Before this fire could be extinguished, the Church set off another blaze. In June, the Catholic Church directed all hospitals under its control, which are many, to ignore government policy of having contraceptives at all health centres in the country.
Government was furious, prompting Health Minister Dr Diane Gashumba to report the matter to Parliament, which incidentally is powerless on its part. Talks are still ongoing, but unlikely to change the minds of the men of God. And the Health Minister has not been involved in these talks, indication the Vatican still calls the shots around here.
At some point, in August, Monsignor Rukamba himself cast doubt on the effectiveness of birth control bills. His comments were in reaction to a growing crisis in the country as nearly 20,000 underage girls were impregnated last year, with similar numbers the previous years.
Rukamba said at the time that there are 1,000 girls with babies in one of the parishes of Kigali. Rukamba seemed to suggest it is the girls to blame for their situation.
“It is caused by girls loosening themselves,” said Msgr Rukamba to a large crowd celebrating a major anniversary of Butare diocese. “Even if they give you those pills, the the only medicine is you. The Bazungu (white people) who spread the contraceptives are themselves having many babies they don’t want, as other abort.”
The Catholic Church’s wooes have been worse this year, partly because it was the 25th commemoration of the genocide. It was the moment for the ruling establishment to evaluate where the country is from, and where it is headed. The Catholic Church happens to be a major thorn.
As if the year had not been bad enough, the Church angrily dismissed government calls to excommunicate Catholic priests accused and convicted of role in the genocide. The National Commission for the fight against Genocide (CNLG) was leading this campaign.
Not so fast, the church said. The more than 30 priests and nuns convicted for their role in 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda will remain serving in the Catholic Church, added Monsignor Rukamba, in May.
According data analysised by The Chronicles, more than 130,000 Tutsis were killed at 48 parishes alone – with Churches bulldozed, grenades hurled inside – supported by hoards of interahamwe militias and government forces. The parishes were opened by priests, Brothers and Nuns – allowing in the killers.
Having to defend an institution with such a record would, under normal circumstances, be an impossible task. Not for Monsignor Phillippe Rukamba. He always maintains a calm domino, and is always very receptive to media interviews.
Despite the blood of thousands of Tutsis being on the hands of the Catholic Church, the world’s most powerful institution has never been more powerful. Gen James Kabarebe, former Defense Minister, and now a key aide to President Kagame, admitted to this fact.
“How [the Catholic Church] survived after the Genocide is another difficult question,” said Kabarebe, in a speech at the University of Rwanda on April 4, days before the 25th commemoration of the genocide.
He added: “…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.”
Monsignor Phillippe Rukamba and his team may have very easily managed to win the ruling elite to their side, but the numbers show they are struggling to win the hearts and minds of the ordinary Rwandan.
A national census conducted in August 1992 by Habyarimana’s government, showed that 62.6% of Rwandans were Catholics, from a population of 7.1million.
After the genocide in 1994, a census of 2012 found that 44% of about 11.5million Rwandans, were Catholics – indicating a very significant drop in faithfuls who identified themselves as Catholics. There is no indication this downward trend will not be seen in the 2022 census.
All is not as bad though. Either by default or coincidence, government will release most of the genocide convicts in a program to be conducted over the next 2 years. Some will have completed their sentences, while others are too sick and old – thereby making them unnecessarily expensive for government if they stay in jail.
A vigorous program was launched months ago in which the convicts reach out to genocide survivors to plead for forgiveness. It has been, and will remain a tough journey. Not all the convicts have been enthusiastic about saying ‘please forgive me’.
More good news for Monsignor Rukamba came on January 29 when Kagame attended the installation of Antoine Kambanda as the Archbishop of Kigali Archdiocese. In his speech, Kagame announced, amid loud applause, that government would contribute cash towards the construction of a new cathedral.
Earlier in December 2018, government caved to Catholic Church calls to change the academic calendar. Students in primary and secondary schools would open in the second week of January and end early in November 2019, with other changes to the durations of the 3 school terms.
The Catholic Church, which controls some of the biggest and best performing schools, had campaigned for the review of the schools calendar on the grounds that students find it hard to study while teachers also can’t teach well due to the heat.
At the site where Sainte Famille cathedral sits, which was threatened with demolition years ago, the Catholic Church last month (November 2019) opened Rwf 6billion Sainte Famille Hotel.
It may have been a tough five years back, but it surely looks to be a good beginning to Monsignor Rukamba’s new tenure.