Updated: Wednesday, 09 April 2014 12:33 | By Agence France-Presse

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.


Evangelism booms, Catholicism suffers in post-genocide Rwanda

People pray inside an Evangelical restoration church on April 6, 2014, in Kigali, on the eve of the start of a national mourning period marking the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda - by Simon Maina

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.

"When we used to attend mass there was no interaction between the priest and the congregation. I was like a slave, being told what to do and what not to do. Here I feel free," he said.

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.

"These churches are attractive because there is singing, a big display of emotion and an opportunity for individual expression," explained Paul Rutayisire, a historian specialised in religious issues.

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.

"After the genocide people were spiritually weak. They were sick," explained James Nsengiyumva, the 39-year-old preacher and secretary general of Celpar. "We brought them a new message of empowerment and reconciliation."

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. 

"Its abandonment was felt all the more keenly in that some of its members hid criminal actions," he said.

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

"People go to the Catholics, then to the others. Some people even go to both... those are spiritual journeys." 

"The debate over the role of the Catholic Church in the genocide is something that is of interest to an elite group of genocide survivors, for within the majority that was not persecuted (i.e. the Hutu) this is not an issue," he added. 

"We don't see them as competition," said Smaragde Mbonyintege, the head of the Episcopal Conference in Rwanda, adding that the Catholic Church had a lot to learn from the preaching methods of the new churches. 

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.

"They are sprouting up like mushrooms," said Felicien Usengumukiza, deputy director general of the Rwanda Governance Board, noting that many of those in charge of evangelical churches seem more interested in making money.

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.

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