The United Nations war crimes court for Rwanda handed down a 15 year jail term to a Roman Catholic priest convicted of genocide for his active role in the 1994 mass killings in the central African country. It took into account 'his good record before 1994', his 'relative youth' and his voluntary surrender.
A three member panel headed by Judge Andrefia Vaz said that the International Criminal Tribunal found Rev. Athanase Seromba guilty on two of four counts he faced in connection with the genocide in which up to a million people, mainly minority Tutsis, died. He is the first Roman Catholic priest to have been tried so far in connection with the slaughter.
Last week the tribunal allowed early release to Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, an 82 year old former senior pastor of the Seventh day Adventist Church who had been serving a 10 year prison sentence handed down 19 February 2003 for his role in the genocide.
Seromba was the Roman Catholic priest at Nyange parish in Kivumu Commune, Rwanda, and is ethnically Hutu. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. These centred on the destruction of his church where about 2,000 Tutsis had sought shelter in April 1994. He was accused of ordering the destruction of the church by buldozers, which led to the deaths of all inside, and of sending in Hutu militia members to kill Tutsis who tried to flee. He also personally shot refugees who tried to escape the killings and handed survivors over to the killers, many of whom were then murdered in his presence. In addition he personally manned a roadblock to check identity cards so that Tutsis could be singled out and killed.
Seromba had claimed he was simply a parish priest and had been powerless to stop the killing.
The New Times, published in Kigali, Rwanda, described the 15 year sentence as 'paltry' and said he had 'cheated justice'. It added: "For the survivors, whose families, friends and neighbours died at the hands of Seromba, or wounded and left to lead a life of grief, isolation and poverty, the verdict amounts to a denial of justice".
The editor added: "If Seromba, 31 in 1994, was old enough to be trusted by the Catholic Church as a priest in charge of a parish, surely he was sufficiently mature to recognise the difference between right and wrong? Those who knew Seromba when he was studying for the priesthood at the Grand Seminary in Nyakabanda do not share the tribunals' judgment about Seromba's 'good reputation' prior to 1994. While at the RC seminary in Nyakabanda, he joined a committee of students who were later implicated in the genocide. It would be truer to say that Seromba was 'surrendered by the Papacy, after intense pressure by the ICTR, than to claim he came of his own free will. From the time his presence in Italy became public to his arrival in Arusha in February 2002, he did everything possible to elude justice and to deny his role in the massacres in Rwanda".
Ntakiruimana, who spent sometime in custody before his 10-year sentence, had headed the Adventist church in western Rwanda and was responsible for the Mugonero parish, where thousands of Tutsis were killed. He was convicted together with his son Gerard, who was a doctor at the Mugonero hospital. Gerard is now serving 25 years in prison.
As we reported in British Church Newspaper, in April 2004, events and media coverage of the l 0th anniversary of the Hutu massacres of Tutsis spring, 1994, strangely omitted the role of the institution largely responsible for the genocide the Roman Catholic church. Its role, said many, could be compared to its role in supporting the Nazis in the 1930s.
The origins of the Rwandan conflict lay in the bizarre racial theories of the Belgian Roman Catholic 'White Fathers'. Darwinian evolutionary and racial theories were then in full flow. The 'Fathers' developed a theory, the socalled 'Hamitic hypothesis', which proclaimed that 'civilised' African societies emanated from an invasion of 'Ham ites' who originally settled in Ethiopia.
Rwandan history was effectively rewritten by RC academics and Belgian colonial administrators, who proclaimed that the Hutus were of 'inferior' stock and destined to be treated like Bantu serfs. Tutsi were given places of resonsibility in Rwanda. Their powers and privileges increased greatly. But Hutu resentment grew.
Gregoire Kayibanda, Secretary to Monsignor Vincent Nsengiyuma, Rwanda's Roman Catholic Archbishop, became first President of an independent Rwanda, having earlier founded the racial supremacist 'Parme Hutu' pity. The Tutsi were now seen by RC thinkers as 'invaders' from Ethiopia and the RC Church orchestrated calls for the Tutsi to be 'sent back home'. In 1972 a group of eleven Hutu priests sent a letter to the Archbishop describing the Tutsi as 'inyensi' (cockroaches) a word used frequently by Hutu killers in the 1994 massacres.
The following year, the RC Church publicly endorsed the purge of Tutsis from schools, colleges and the civil service. Abuses and occasional massacres of Tutsis were the inevitable result of this persecution.
The events leading up to the genocide in April 1994 were, according to many experts, planned and co ordinated by RC church leaders and politicians in conjunction with Hutu racial supremacists and United States Ambassador David Rawson.
In a 1999 Guardian article, Chris McGreal wrote of the failure of the RC church to prevent the bloodshed: "It failed because it claims four out of five Rwandans as adherents, yet it made little effort to influence the killers. That failure continues today through denial and evasion over its responsibility for the genocide".
A number of RC priests actively participated in the genocide of the Tutsi, including Augustin Misago, charged in 1999 with dispatching children to serve in the Hutu militia. A human rights group, who investigated RC participation in the massacres, wrote to the Pope saying: "One is struck by the persistent wish to exonerate the RC hierarchy and the institution at any price".