Athanase Seromba is a Roman Catholic priest who for years served in Rwanda. This past week he was sentenced by an international war criminal court to fifteen years in prison. His crime? He ordered the bulldozing of his own church in western Rwanda in 1994 when 2,000 Tutsis sought sanctuary there during the mass killings of that period so poignantly depicted in "Hotel Rwanda". He was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and certainly received a light sentence.
This was the first time ever a Catholic priest had ever been tried before an international war tribunal based in Arusha, Tanzania. But that is not all. Two other Catholic priests are awaiting charges there, while three nuns and various other clergy have already been convicted in various courts for playing roles in the death of some 800,000 people! That's right, I said 800,000. If that happened in the U.S. we would have a revolution just like the one in Rwanda.
My now you know the horrible story of how Hutu extremists began in April 1994 stirring up themajority Hutu population against the Tutsis. Their plan was to wipe out the moderate Hutus and all the Tutsis. Rwanda has been and is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, and as the article by Marc Lacey in the NY Times says (which is the basis for this blog) some of the worst violence and genocide took place within the churches like that of Athanase Seromba. It is also true that there were great acts of heroism by clergy and other Christians as well. But you can still go to Rwanda today and see the horrible legacy of that period with some churches abandoned or turned into memorials with the remains of the dead stacked up like cordwood against the pews.
The testimony about and against Father Seromba is chilling. He was the priest in a village called Nyange, and the Tutsis hid out in his sanctuary on April 12 1994. The Hutu militia (called the Interahamwe) and also some Rwandan soliders were repelled at first when they descended upon the church. At this point however the assailants secured the assistance of Father Seromba who pointed out the weaker parts of the church so it could be bulldozed, and later he encouraged the fighters to finish off those refugees calling them 'cockroaches'. After the slaughter Father Seromba fled from Rwanda changed his name to Anastasio Sumba Bura and worked as a parish priest near Florence Italy. He surrended however to the tribunal in February 2002, and only now has been tried and convicted. Testifying against him in Tanazania were some of the few actually survivors, fifteen of them.
Only a week before Rev. Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, had been released by the tribunal having served ten years for his role in the killings. He stood by and watched and allowed his own parishioners to be slaughtered.
As we reflect on this sobering news, I would simply ask us to consider two questions" 1) Who would Jesus have identified with in this situation-- the ministers or the slaughtered Tutsis?; 2) Who acted more like King Herod, or his aids in this genocide? I am afraid once again we have here stories where a person's ethnic loyalties were allowed to trump their Christian beliefs and principles. It is not an unusual story, however tragic. It reminds us what God has said "you shall have no other gods before me" by which is also meant no other loyalties higher than loyalty to Christ and his ethnically inclusive Gospel. It was Chaucer who said of priests-- "if gold rusts, what then will iron do?" If ministers set this kind of example, what can we expect of the laity. Think on these things.