Rwanda's resurrection of faith

Pews were packed Sunday with Easter worshipers, many of whom had left after the church's role in the 1994 genocide.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

She waited all week to cry. Finally, in the midst of the Easter service at Kigali's new Zion Temple, as 3,000 worshipers stand around her, singing, swaying, arms upstretched, voices shaking the floor of the airplane hangar sanctuary, Agathe Rumanyika found a safe place to mourn the father, mother, and sister she lost a decade ago this week.

Ten Easters ago, she was celebrating the Resurrection at St. Michel, one of the Rwandan capital's biggest Catholic churches. The following week, the killing began. Ms. Rumanyika, her husband, and their young children first hid with friends, then borrowed a car and sped for the Congo border - evading death, she says, only by a series of miracles. As they fled and prayed, hundreds of thousands of members of Rwanda's Hutu ethnic majority were hacking to death nearly a million of their minority Tutsi and moderate Hutu countrymen on the orders of an extremist Hutu government.

Nearly all of the Rwandan genocide's large-scale massacres took place in churches, sometimes with the complicity of church leaders. When their betrayal became known, many in this heavily Christian country lost their faith.

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Now, a decade on, many Rwandans say they have experienced a resurrection of faith. Hundreds of new charismatic churches are springing up, conversions to Islam are on the rise, and many are even finding ways to make their peace with the churches that failed to offer them sanctuary a decade ago.

"We did not give up on God," Rumanyika says. "Today more people are getting closer to God, because they are asking themselves, 'Why did we survive? We are not righteous; we did not deserve it.' So we become even stronger with God."

Ali Uwimana agrees. A mildly observant Roman Catholic before 1994, he, like Rumanyika, was disgusted with the behavior of church leaders during the genocide. Many of Mr. Uwimana's relatives died in their parish church in Kibungo, 40 miles from the capital.

"The churches became graves," he says. "The Catholic church has no power now because of what they did in the war. You can't know God and yet kill people in the house of God."

So with the help of his Muslim boss, the father of three converted to Islam. Though Islam is growing in popularity throughout Africa, many Rwandans say they joined the faith because they were impressed, as Uwimana was, with the way the country's Muslim community comported itself during the genocide, offering sanctuary to Tutsi and Hutu alike. Today some 500 bright teal mosques dot the countryside, nearly twice the number found here a decade ago.

At the same time, many smaller Christian denominations, unable to gain a foothold in pregenocidal Rwanda, are thriving today. Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Churches of the Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Zion Temples, and scores of smaller storefront churches are flooded with members. Many of these churches came to Rwanda when waves of Tutsi exiles - who had been living in Burundi, Congo, and Tanzania since a violent 1959 uprising brought a hostile Hutu dictatorship to power - returned after the genocide.

These new churches play a particularly vital social role in a country without a welfare system where, as Mary Kimani, a Kenyan filmmaker based in Kigali explains, "If you fall to the bottom, only the church will catch you."

But when Rwanda hit bottom, neither the Catholic church which then counted some 75 percent of the population as members, nor mainline Protestant denominations, which accounted for another 20-plus percent, caught the people. Gaudens Murasandonyi, a newly appointed priest at a church in the town of Kibuye where 11,400 people died, says the genocide was a test of faith that found many lacking.

Many killers, he says, including priests, called themselves Christians without understanding what that meant. "Christianity is a life," he says. "It is not a shirt that I can put on. It is necessary to live it."

Today, that's what Emmanuel Murangira struggles to do. Ten years ago, when the father of five heard killers were coming for his family, he and his wife took their children to their parish church. There, he says, the bishop gave orders that all seeking refuge should cross the valley to a new boarding school where they would be safe. Then, Mr. Murangira says, the bishop sent the killers after them. Of the 40,000 people sheltering in the school, four survived. Murangira crawled out from a pile of bodies and fled to Burundi.

At first, he says, he could not go back to church. He was angry, uncomprehending; he mourned alone his wife and children, and the 43 members of his extended family who died with them. Then, though it puzzles some acquaintances, he started going back periodically to the church where his bishop, Augustine Misago - acquitted of genocide by a Kigali court in 2002 - continues to preach.

"I go to talk to God," says Murangira, now a guide at the school memorial site. "I know this bishop is not God. He has nothing to do with God. It is God I need now."

This Easter morning, the Zion Temple congregation is on its feet, singing a gorgeous chorus in the local language that translates, "Lord, when I meet you in Heaven I will ask you: 'Why did you let me live? Why did you give me life?' "

Rumanyika tips up her chin to join in. She's certain she would not have survived the genocide had a friend not given her a tiny book of Psalms on the eve of the killing and urged her to read Psalm 91: "You shall not be afraid of the terror by night; or the arrow that flies by day; or the pestilence that walks in darkness; or the destruction that wastes at noon. A thousand shall fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you.... For he shall give his angels charge over you." She held the book open over heart as killers searched a room where she stood in plain sight and could not see her, and again as a guard at a roadblock raised a machete over her head that somehow never fell.

"There is no word for that but miracle," she says.

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