The Government, Genocide survivors and observers have all expressed outrage at the conduct of the Catholic Church in Rwanda during the just-concluded 25th official commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
The Church has come under fire of a declaration it released on April 7, 2019, in which it appealed for clemency for convicted Genocide perpetrators, particularly the elderly and the sick.
On April 13, the Church released another communiqué in which it expressed regret for the timing of its earlier statement - which had been read out in all its parishes across the country - but this has also attracted condemnation.
Jean Damascene Bizimana, the Executive Secretary of CNLG. Emmanuel Kwizera.
The decision to plead on behalf of the elderly and ill Genocide convicts was taken by the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church - the Church's highest organ in the country.
What attracted the ire of the public most is that the request was made in masses in all churches on April 7, the main day for the 25th Genocide commemoration events. The Genocide against the Tutsi, which claimed over a million lives, broke out on April 7, 1994.
Bishop Philippe Rukamba, the president of the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church in Rwanda. Net photo.
And, while the Church said it regretted the timing of their declaration, it stood by the message therein.
"We apologise because we announced it during this difficult commemoration period," the Church said in the statement released Saturday.
It was signed Mgr. Phillippe Rukamba, the Bishop of Huye Diocese, who doubles as the president of the Episcopal Conference.
However, speaking to The New Times on Tuesday, Johnston Busingye, the Minister for Justice, said that rather than plead for clemency on behalf of Genocide convicts, the Church should be dealing with various issues such as its membership to the MRND, the political party that organised and supervised the Genocide.
A woman tours Ntarama Catholic Church-turned Genocide Memorial in Bugesera District. Sam Ngendahimana
The Catholic Church, Busingye said, had a permanent seat at the Central Committee of MRND.
"My suggestion is that the Church should be dealing with issues like its membership to MRND's central committee, justice for the nearly 200 priests, brothers and nuns who were killed for being Tutsi, accountability of the over 80 Church premises Tutsis ran to for safety but were slaughtered therein," he said.
He added: "It should also be dealing with the over 60 of these churches that today stand next to Genocide memorials of those slaughtered in there, including Nyamata, Ntarama and half of Kibeho which are wholly memorials".
He also said that the Church should be dealing with the 25 Catholic priests prosecuted for genocide, including Fr. Emmanuel Rukundo and Father Athanase Seromba convicted of genocide crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Rukundo was found guilty of genocide, murder as a crime against humanity and extermination, and is serving a 25-year-sentence.
Seromba was in 2008 found guilty for the murder of thousands of members of his congregation who had sought refuge in the church at the height of the 1994 Genocide.
He killed them by commandeering a bulldozer onto the church building, collapsing on all those inside.
He is serving a life sentence.
Church 'lacks moral authority'
"With these things in stock; I don't see where they get the moral authority to seek general clemency for Genocide convicts," Busingye wondered.
The minister said that the apology letter would not have changed anything, adding that the circulation of the letter for reading in all churches came off as a kind of propaganda stunt.
Jean Damascène Bizimana, the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG), on Monday poked holes in the 'apology statement', saying it does not change anything, since they only apologised for the timing of the initial declaration and not its content.
Bizimana had in an earlier interview said that while it is the Catholic Church's right to express its views, reducing jail sentence for unrepentant convicts wouldn't solve any problem.
According to figures from Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS), about 78 per cent of Genocide convicts are unrepentant, and this is seen as a hindrance to unity and reconciliation efforts.
"What I can say is that the 1996 law criminalising genocide and the Gacaca courts law set conditions of how Genocide convicts who confess have their sentences reduced. For Gacaca courts, some convicts did not even have to go to prison but partook in works of general interests (TIG)," he added.
"How would survivors feel if you released an unrepentant Genocide convict and how does this contribute toward unity and reconciliation?" Bizimana posed.
Naphtal Ahishakiye, the Executive Secretary of Ibuka, the umbrella organisation of Genocide survivors, questioned both the content and timing of the Catholic communique.
Particularly, he said, the same elderly Genocide convicts are the ones who mostly still harbour genocide ideology.
"The Catholic Church should not be advocating for early release of Genocide convicts just because they are either old or sick; especially at a time when we are honouring their victims, it should rather show mercy to the victims," he said.
"These are killers who never forgave the elderly and sick people during the Genocide and should serve their sentences to full length, as long as their rights such as access to medical care are respected," he added.
According to Prof. François Masabo, the Head of the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Rwanda, it is not the Catholic Church's business to remind the State to pardon convicts.
"I don't see the relevance of the communiqué because it would not be the first time the elderly and the ill are released," he said. He also questioned the Church's moral authority in matters justice given that it is yet to show remorse for its role in the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Dr Eric Ndushabandi, the Director of the Institute for Research and Dialogue for Peace (IRDP), a local think-tank, said the Church's intentions given the timing of the communiqué were questionable.
"It is really not appropriate to make such statements at such a time," he noted.