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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.

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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."

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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.