Evangelism Booms, Catholicism Suffers in Post-Genocide Rwanda

Jean-Claude Zamwita’s family abandoned the solemn organ music and stained glass windows of the Catholic church in 2006, eight years after the genocide in Rwanda, and started visiting an evangelical church with tambourines and drumming.

Such churches have been springing up across Rwanda, partly because the traditional churches, notably the Catholic Church, were largely discredited by the role played by some of their clerics during the killings.

Since the end of the genocide, which left some 800,000 people — essentially Tutsis — dead, Rwandans have increasingly turned to pentecostal churches or in some cases to Islam.

Zamwita, who was 15 when his family changed churches, said it was an easy decision.

The new churches started when Rwandan refugees came back from neighbouring countries such as Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where evangelical churches are already well established.

Inside the Celpar church that Zamwita and his family attend, the service looks more like a rock concert than anything else.

On a small stage a dozen members of the congregation sing, dance, leap into the air and then throw themselves to their knees. Others throw their arms into the air, wipe tears from their eyes before plunging their head into their hands as if the end was near.

This Ugandan-born Rwandan, dressed in a well-cut suit, has 29 churches in Rwanda, three in neighbouring Burundi and a further 40 in DR Congo.

– Catholic complicity –

The new churches have found post-genocide Rwanda to be fertile ground as the Catholic Church, while still powerful, no longer has the close relationship to the government that it enjoyed prior to 1994.

Rwanda is still dotted with the ruins of Catholic churches where the faithful seeking shelter were massacred, sometimes with members of the clergy acting in complicity with the killers.

The debate over the role of the Catholic Church was revived on Monday when Rwanda’s representative to UNESCO lashed out at the Vatican.

The Catholic Church, a moral authority and an important institution remained silent,” Jacques Kabale, Rwanda’s ambassador to France and to the UN agency, said on Monday, the 20th anniversary of the genocide.

In spite of everything the Catholic Church has not totally lost its influence, Rutayisire said.

The Rwandan government for its part considers that if the evangelical churches do not for the moment represent a threat to public order, they are nevertheless difficult to keep tabs on.

If the evangelical churches get financing from outside the country, they also depend on contributions from the faithful. Zamwita, who ekes out a living from odd jobs, gives, like many other member of the flock who can barely afford it, 10 percent of his earnings to the church.