Pope Apologizes for Catholic Church's Role in Rwandan Genocide in Kagame Meeting

Paul Kagame Pope Francis
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame is welcomed by Pope Francis during a private meeting at the Vatican, March 20. The pope apologized for the Catholic Church's role in the Rwandan genocide. Tony Gentile/Reuters

Pope Francis has asked forgiveness for the role of the Catholic Church during the Rwandan genocide in a meeting with the country's president, Paul Kagame.

Francis hosted Kagame, an opposition fighter during the 1994 genocide, with a private audience at the Vatican on Monday, Vatican Radio reported.

Between April and July 1994, extremists from the Hutu ethnic minority killed more than 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. International courts have indicted several Catholic priests for alleged involvement in the genocide.

The Catholic Church in Rwanda formally apologized for its role in the genocide for the first time in November 2016; prior to that point, the Church had maintained that its members who perpetrated crimes during the genocide were acting individually. But the Rwandan government rejected the apology as "profoundly inadequate" and demanded a statement from the Vatican on the matter.

During Monday's meeting, the Argentine pontiff "conveyed his profound sadness, and that of the Holy See and of the Church, for the genocide against the Tutsi," Vatican Radio reported.

The pope expressed his solidarity with the victims and their loved ones and "implored anew God's forgiveness for the sins and failings of the Church and its members, among whom [were] priests, and religious men and women who succumbed to hatred and violence."

Acknowledging the November 2016 apology by the Rwandan bishops, Francis asked that the Vatican's "humble recognition of the failings of that period" could contribute to renewed trust between the Catholic Church and the Rwandan authorities.

Kagame tweeted that the meeting marked a "new chapter" in relations between Rwanda and the Vatican and that the apology was an "act of courage… typical [of] Pope Francis."

A statement from Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said that the meeting was "characterized by a spirit of openness and mutual respect." Mushikiwabo said it was a "positive step forward" and that it "allows us to build a stronger base for restoring harmony between Rwandans and the Catholic Church."

The Rwandan government has long accused the Catholic Church and its institutions of facilitating the genocide, and survivor accounts claimed that Catholic clergy failed to protect victims who hid in their churches.

An international tribunal set up to prosecute perpetrators of the genocide convicted a Rwandan Catholic priest, Athanase Seromba, in 2006 of genocide by aiding and abetting extermination; Seromba was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Another Rwandan priest, Emmanuel Rukundo, was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment by the same tribunal in 2009 for participating in the genocide, although this was reduced to 23 years in 2010.

The Catholic Church still employs a Rwandan priest in France, Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, who was convicted in absentia by a Rwandan military court in 2006. A French judge dismissed the case against Munyeshyaka in 2015 due to a lack of evidence.

The genocide followed the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, by unknown assailants. Kagame and his Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front helped bring the genocide to an end by seizing control of the capital Kigali in July 1994. Kagame has been in power in Rwanda since 2000 and is planning to run again in 2017, after a referendum in 2015 allowed him to apply for a third term.