A Review of Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda

Longman, Timothy Paul. Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.

Nearly twenty two years ago in Rwanda, Christian leaders and laypersons contributed to the massacre of their neighbors only a few days after celebrating Easter. During the violence that enveloped “the land of thousand hills” between April and July 1994, an estimated 500,000 to one million Tutsi and their perceived Hutu and Twa allies were killed in a country in which nearly 90% of the population identified as Christian. In Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda, Timothy Longman seeks to explain both how and why Christians became involved in the 1994 genocide.

Rwandan Christians did not contribute to the genocide due to a nominal faith; instead, Longman’s forceful narrative claims that “something in the nature of Christianity in Rwanda made it unable or unwilling to restrain genocide.” Longman, the Director of the African Studies Center and Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston University, argues Rwanda’s churches were not simply implicated in the genocide because of the disturbing contribution of individual Christians. Rather, he contends that Rwanda’s churches were deeply culpable as social institutions. Longman’s book describes the formation and development of Christianity in Rwanda from its genesis in 1900 during colonialism through the end of the genocide in 1994. His narration illumines the complex ways that Rwanda’s churches politicized ethnicity, authorized autocratic and discriminatory governments, and promoted obedience and acquiescence to Rwanda’s political institutions.

Christianity and Colonialism

Since Christianity’s inception in Rwanda, first Catholic, and later Protestant, missionaries have sought to cultivate intimate relationships with Rwanda’s political powers in order to secure influence and power in the country. The first Catholic missionaries, the Society of Missionaries—better known as the White Fathers—entered into Rwanda with the goal of obtaining the favor of Rwanda’s kingdom. Longman argues that the White Fathers were convinced that Christianity would thrive in Rwanda by maintaining a cozy alliance with the colonial administration and the Rwandan kingdom. They believed that if royal court elites converted to the faith, then the masses would follow suit.

In their efforts to obtain the favor of Rwandan elites, the White Fathers partnered with the German colonial administration in expanding and consolidating the Rwandan monarchy’s control over the autonomous regions in Rwanda. When the remaining independent kingdoms resisted assimilation or when challenges to the Monarch’s power emerged, the White Fathers sided with the Rwandan royal court. Additionally, when the Belgian colonial powers took over Rwanda from the Germans following their defeat in World War I in 1916, the White Fathers continued to pursue Tutsi elites with various tactics, including the provision of educational opportunities for Tutsi youth.

The White Fathers now collaborated with the Belgians to require King Musinga to legalize Christian mission in 1917, and again in 1931 to replace Musinga with his son, Rudahigwa, in order to install a king more favorable to Christianity. Eventually, the White Father’s efforts in befriending the royal court paid off. Following the conversion of the Tutsi elite to Christianity in 1930s, a significant portion of the kingdom’s population converted throughout the next decade. To many missionaries, the widespread acceptance of Christianity by the 1940s confirmed the value of sustaining an intimate connection between Rwanda’s churches and the state.[1]

The racialization of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa

Seeking to convert the political elites of the Rwandan kingdom was rooted not only in a pragmatic desire to obtain converts, but was also funded by racial theories prominent in Europe at the time. The Belgians and the White Fathers “observed” distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi to be basically racial and social, flattening out regional variation, lineage, clan, existing political institutions and the relative flexibility associated with Hutu and Tutsi prior to the arrival of the missionaries in Rwanda. Accordingly, the White Fathers and the Belgians attributed any sign of nobility, power and “civilization” to the Tutsi, who they perceived to be superior and fit to rule to the Hutu and Twa.

While categories like Hutu or Tutsi are likely very old in Rwanda’s social discourse, these identities are not primordial, static, and immutable. A few years before the arrival of the first missionaries, the kingdom of central Rwanda experienced thirty years of expansion and consolidation under the rule of King Kigeri Rwabugiri (c. 1860-1895). Rwabugiri concentrated and centralized power through various socio-political structures. It is in this context, that Longman contends that Hutu and Tutsi started to become less fluid categories, obtaining greater ethnic salience, corresponding with a difference in social status. And while this process of increasing ethnic stratification began before the colonialists arrived, Hutu and Tutsi were inscribed with new and more ridged meanings during the colonial period.

Despite the fact that there were Hutu chiefs and elites, as well as poor Tutsi, the White Fathers and Belgians facilitated the development of Hutu and Tutsi into rigid and highly stratified racial categories by legally inscribing them through identity cards in the 1930s. These identities also corresponded to various political, economic and ecclesiastical advantages and disadvantages. While Tutsi enjoyed access to property rights and roles in important institutions, Hutu, on the other hand, faced disadvantages through taxes, forced labor, and discrimination. The White Fathers and Belgian colonial administration did not create ethnicity in Rwanda, and many Tutsi elites manipulated the socio-biological ideologies of the Europeans to secure power and advantages. Nevertheless, the White Fathers and the colonial powers inscribed Hutu, Tutsi and Twa with new meanings, resulting in a more stratified society marked by these enduring identities.

Christianity in post-colonial Rwanda

Following World War II, sensibilities concerning human rights and colonialism began to change, prompting young missionaries to advocate for the interests of the Hutu. By providing Hutu with educational opportunities in church schools, the European missionaries “foster[ed] a new Hutu elite who challenged the injustices of the Rwandan system and eventually, after a popular revolt in 1959 drove Tutsi chiefs from office, and assumed political power,” according to Longman. During this time, the Catholic Church, like the Belgian colonial administration, transferred its allegiance from the Tutsi elite to the Hutu elite. In this way, the Church continued to participate in Rwanda’s ethnic politics as it sought establish local parishes as hubs of political power.[2]

Between 1959 and 1990, Rwanda’s Catholic and Protestant leaders, in many ways maintained the pattern it followed since Christianity’s inception in Rwanda, by aligning themselves and their churches with those in political power. After the revolution that culminated in Rwanda’s independence in 1962, the new Hutu-led regime under Grégoire Kayibanda maintained intimate “personal and official” connections with Catholic hierarchy, despite pressing for political independence from the Church. And when Juvenal Habyarimana grabbed power after a military coup in 1973, he eagerly cultivated important relations with both Rwanda’s Catholic and Protestant churches, recognizing their political clout. Rwanda’s church leaders responded, by and large, through fostering obedience to the Habyarimana regime. Thus, given the general support Rwanda’s churches offered those in power, Rwanda’s churches failed to provide a substantial opposition to the waves of violence that occurred against Rwanda’s Tutsi in 1959, 1965 and 1973—despite being directly affected by it. Rwanda’s churches and Christian leaders failed to condemn the violence, setting an important precedent for future violence.

This pattern of providing explicit and implicit support to those in power continued through the presidency of Juvenal Habyarimana, as Catholic and Protestant leaders aligned themselves and their churches with those in political power. During the Habyarimana regime, a system of patron-client relationships developed between the Habyarimana government and church leaders, channeling government resources and political positions as rewards for support of the political authorities. And while Rwanda’s churches and leaders came into conflict with the state from time to time, compromise generally prevailed.

During the 1980s and 1990s, a confluence of new theological developments and grassroots democratic activism within Rwanda’s churches furnished fresh provocations against Christianity’s affiliation with state power. Nevertheless, in aggregate, Rwanda’s churches impact on democratic reform was mixed with some groups and individuals advocating reform of various kinds, while other Christian leaders perceiving these reforms as threats to their established power. More specifically, Longman argues that church leaders sought to “remain relevant within the changing political context and to respond to internal pressures,” providing “mild endorsements of political reform” as long as it did not subvert their personal power and kept their opposition in check.

Rwanda’s churches and Genocide

The genocide, which occurred in a span of 100 days, was perpetrated in the context of a civil war that took place between October 1990 and August 1993. Catalyzed by the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana after his plane was shot down in April 6, 1994, massacres erupted across Rwanda, as the genocidal plan was set into motion by elites of the post-Habyarimana government and military. Longman reveals that even though Protestant and Catholic leadership did not participate in the planning of the genocide, “clergy, catechists and other church employees used their knowledge of the local population to identify Tutsi for elimination,” while in several cases church staff killed parishioners and neighbors.

Yet, the Rwandan churches did not simply commit sins of commission, but sins of omission as well: most church leaders failed to name and rebuke the genocide. This tacit support of violence enabled many Christians to perceive the genocide as consistent with Christian practice and belief. As such, Rwanda’s Christian leaders cultivated an atmosphere where “good, practicing Christians could kill their neighbors without feeling that they were acting inconsistently with their faith,” Longman argues.

While there were Christians and churches that—prompted by their Christian beliefs—actively resisted and condemned the genocide, by and large, Rwanda’s churches and Christian leaders failed to act as an impediment to the systematic slaughter of up to 1 million Tutsi along with the murder of Hutu and Twa who took a stand against the genocide and the interim Rwandan government.


Taken as a whole, Longman’s book demonstrates that instead of establishing an alternative to state power by resisting ethnic discrimination, opposing violence and attending to Rwanda’s marginalized, many of Rwanda’s Christian leaders and churches fomented a situation in which genocide was possible and sometimes even encouraged. Longman’s analysis of the church’s role in the genocide establishes his book as an essential contribution to the already large body of scholarship on the Rwandan genocide.

The church is indebted to Longman for offering a book, which raises important questions for Christians as the church remembers the devastation of the 1994 genocide and contemplate the witness of the church today. What does it look like for Christians in Rwanda to embody forgiveness and repentance given the culpability of the church in the past? How can Rwanda’s churches cultivate an identity and unity rooted in Jesus Christ that challenges ethnic or political allegiances? How ought Christians relate to the Rwandan government today given Rwanda’s churches past relationship to political power structures? If fear, social pressure and obedience were some of the drivers of the mass participation in the genocide, how can faith, hope and love shape Christian witness in Rwanda today?

[1] While Longman emphasizes the actual desire of the Catholic missionaries to obtain influence among the elites of the royal court, in Rwanda Before Genocide, J.J. Carney argues that there was a tension built into the actions of the first missionaries. On the one hand, Carney affirms Longman’s assertion: the missionaries did seek to convert the political elites. On the other hand, Carney suggests that the Catholic church’s earlier movements into Rwanda were also marked by reaching out to poor and marginalized Hutu and Tutsi. See J. J. Carney. Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[2] J.J. Carney points out Longman’s failure to highlight the significant roles of Archbishop André Perraudin and Bishop Aloys Bigirumwami in advancing “social justice, democracy, and Hutu rights [that] shaped the contours of postcolonial Rwandan politics.” Moreover, Carney suggests that Perraudin’s “pro-democracy and pro-social” agenda disrupts Longman’s neat and clean depiction of Rwandan Christianity as top-down chauvinism (Carney, Rwanda before the Genocide, n. 8, p. 286).


One thought on “A Review of Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda

  1. Ed Cho

    I’m a Christian myself and I found this article to be insightful. But to be blunt and candid, I’m utterly appalled by the complicity of the Christian church during the Rwandan Genocide. While I do believe in forgiveness, I equally hope that my fellow Christians who actively participated in the genocide get nothing but the harshest judgement and punishment that their sins deserve whether in this life or the next.


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