French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray presided this morning over the celebrations in Kilgali, marking the first centenary of Rwanda´s evangelization, an opportunity that the papal special envoy used to urge national reconciliation, six years after the genocide.
The cardinal expressed the hope that the country not become obsessed with the memory of so many massacres during that genocide.
“No one can remain a prisoner of his past, no matter how oppressive,” he said in a homily during Mass in the Amahoro stadium. “Only God can put an end to the logic of evil and help us come out of the vicious circle of suspicion, vengeance and violence, because for him forgiveness is not a passing attitude, a tactic; it is his very nature.”
The Mass, celebrated in the 30,000-capacity stadium, drew people from all over the country. People began arriving as early as 7 a.m., after walking 10 miles from the center of Kigali.
The government declared a national holiday. Radio and television stations transmitted the ceremony throughout the country. Twenty-three bishops, from Burundi, Tanzania, Belgium, Germany and Italy, as well as those of Rwanda, concelebrated the Mass with Cardinal Etchegaray. Also present were 100 priests, numerous religious, and representatives of Protestant and Muslim communities. Present too were government authorities, deputies, and the wife of Rwanda President Paul Kagame, who himself was abroad.
Cardinal Etchegaray recalled that he visited Rwanda in June 1994 as special papal envoy, at the height of the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis, in an attempt to bring about peace.
“I saw everything imaginable then, I heard incredible things,” he recalled during his homily. “In the midst of victims of all kinds, and refugees of all ages, it was in this martyred land where I understood the meaning of fraternity and the folly of its denial; it was here where I understood that there cannot be a lasting peace when life in common is burdened by want and there is no enjoyment of brotherhood.”
During that visit Cardinal Etchegaray assisted at the burial of three assassinated Rwandan bishops in the Basilica of Kabgayi. The Pope asked him to travel to this Central African country to comfort the local Church, weakened by the loss of some of her pastors.
The previous year, also at the Holy Father´s request, Cardinal Etchegaray went to Rwanda on a peace mission, in the hope of bringing the civil war to an end.
“The Holy Father has sent me again among you to share the immense and unconquerable hope to which you give witness, as you come out of an abysmal test that made you, according to your own expression, ´living dead,´” the cardinal said during the homily.
In 1994, a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana and the president of Burundi was shot down. Both died in the attack. This act unleashed a violent army repression against the Tutsis, and was the beginning of a bloody civil war which led to more than 1 million deaths.
Today, this country, about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland, has a population of 7.2 million.
The United Nations has been obliged to mediate in the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, which has forced more than 1 million Rwandans to flee and seek refuge in neighboring countries, in overcrowded and undersupplied camps like the one in Goma, Zaire. The war ended in the summer of 1994 with the victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which established a government of national unity.