Pope Francis begs forgiveness for Church 'sins' during Rwandan genocide

Ludovica Iaccino
Pope Francis and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame

Pope Francis has begged forgiveness for the "sins and failings" of the Catholic Church during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which at least 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. The pontiff made the remarks after he met Rwanda's President Paul Kagame in Rome on Monday (20 March).

Francis said the Vatican acknowledged that some Catholic priests and nuns "succumbed to hatred and violence, betraying their own evangelical mission," according to a statement quoted by AP.

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The pontiff also "expressed the desire that this humble recognition of the failings of that period, which unfortunately disfigured the face of the church, may contribute to a 'purification of memory' and may promote, in hope and renewed trust, a future of peace."

Francis' statement came months after nine members of the Conference of Catholic Bishops admitted – for the first time – that its members participated in the killings of Tutsi and moderate Hutu.

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The Rwandan government welcomed the move. However, it said the bishops did not acknowledge the extent of the involvement of the Catholic Church in the massacres and urged the Vatican to issue an "adequate" response.

Several Catholic priests and members of the church were tried both in Rwanda and at the UN special tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, for their roles in the killings.

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What sparked the Rwanda genocide?

Kigali genocide memorial

Tensions between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups started with the Belgian colonisation in 1922. The colonisers supported the Tutsi political power and exacerbated ethnic differences between Hutus and Tutsi by introducing the compulsory use of identity cards.

After a Hutu revolution led to the 1962 declaration of independence and the establishment of the Rwanda republic, led by the MDR-Parmehutu, the country was rocked by sporadic violence between the Hutu government and Tutsi rebels.

In 1990 the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), formed by Tutsi refugees who had fled along with their families to Uganda due to ethnic violence in the previous years, invaded Rwanda, starting the Rwanda civil war.

The conflict lasted until 1994, when the genocide against the Tutsis was sparked after suspicions spread that Tutsis had carried out an attack against the then Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana, who died together with Burundi's President Cyprien Ntaryamira in a plane crash on 6 April 1994 .

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