April 13th, 2014
07:25 AM ET
By Tim Townsend, special to CNNFollow @TownsendReport
(CNN) - When the killing began in earnest, Steven Gahigi fled his home in the Bugesera district of Rwanda to neighboring Burundi.
By the time he returned the next year, 52 members of his family were dead. Most of them, including his sister, were slaughtered in the first week of the 20th century’s final genocide.
This week, Rwanda began commemorating the 20 years that have passed since the mass murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, which continued for 100 days and left at least 800,000 dead.
Gathering in a packed soccer stadium in Kigali, Rwandans re-enacted the horrific events of 1994. President Paul Kagame said his country had “a reason to celebrate the normal moments of life, that are easy for others to take for granted."
When Gahigi returned to Rwanda after the genocide, he had nothing: no family, no home. Eventually, he moved past his anger and entered a Christian seminary.
In 1999, he began visiting Rilima Prison in Bugesera, the new home to thousands of the génocidaires, the men who wielded the machetes. In Rilima he met the band of 15 who killed his sister.
At first, the prisoners thought he had been sent by the government – a spy in a clerical collar – to investigate their crimes. Even when they were satisfied that Gahigi wasn’t a spy, they were skeptical of his motives. Why would this man come to their prison to preach when he knew what they had done?
But one of Gahigi’s messages resonated: It was possible for perpetrators to be forgiven. More génocidaires began attending his teachings, including the band of 15. He became their pastor.
While researching a book about prison chaplains a few years ago, I visited Kigali and spoke to pastors like Gahigi.
According to the Rev. Deogratias Gashagaza, executive director of Prison Fellowship Rwanda, there are 36,000 genocide perpetrators still serving time in one of Rwanda’s 13 prisons. That’s down from a high of 130,000 in 1998, according to Human Rights Watch.
Fifteen of Prison Fellowship Rwanda’s 35 chaplain volunteers had family members murdered during the genocide.
When Gahigi returned after the genocide, he met Bishop John Rucyahana, a former Anglican bishop and current president of the country’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, which was established in 1999 with the goal of “reconstructing the Rwandan identity.”
“I knew that to really minister to Rwanda's needs meant working toward reconciliation in the prisons, in the churches, and in the cities and villages throughout the country,” Rucyahana wrote in his book, “The Bishop of Rwanda.”
“It meant feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the young, but it also meant healing the wounded and forgiving the unforgivable.”
Rwanda is overwhelmingly Christian: 50% Catholic and about 44% Protestant and other Christian traditions. The tensions that led to the genocide were between ethnic groups, with the majority Hutu largely acting against the minority Tutsi.
Scholars have since written that Christian leaders aided in the genocide by giving moral support to the perpetrators’ cause.
Forgiveness on the scale suggested by Rucyahana was difficult for Gahigi, even after he graduated from seminary.
“My people died innocently,” he would tell himself. “Why should I have to go and help the people who killed them?”
Eventually Gahigi came to see his own survival as a calling. Instructions came, he said, in his sleep.
He had a dream about a mob beating Jesus as he hung on the cross. A voice told Gahigi, “Those people beating Jesus are the ones Jesus helped. They killed your countrymen and your family, but you can help them.”
When he woke up, he was crying.
“I cried all night, but when the crying stopped, I felt light and love,” Gahigi said.
He believed then that he had the power to forgive and to help others forgive. He began preaching reconciliation, and he sought out the prisoners who killed his family.
“That was Jesus’ mission,” Gahigi told me. “To forgive the sins of all men.”
The wrong question
One of the most horrifying of Rwanda’s genocide memorial sites is in a small, red brick church building outside Kigali in the Bugesera district.
Twenty years ago this Tuesday, Hutu government-backed Interahamwe paramilitary troops arrived at a Catholic church in Ntarama and slaughtered more than 5,000 people who had barricaded themselves inside.
The annihilation of the Tutsi had been underway for more than a week.
For 10 years after the genocide, the victims’ bodies lay where they had fallen inside the church. Visitors to the Ntarama memorial had to jump from pew to pew to avoid the dead.
In 2011, I visited Ntarama with then-U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda Stuart Symington, and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp.
Our guide told us that those who were murdered had come to the church because they believed they would be safe.
“Most Christians didn’t understand at the time that they could be killed in a church,” he said.
Eventually, their bones were moved to a large rack at the back of the church. There were shelves for hundreds of skulls, and others for hundreds of femurs. Shoes were stacked by the altar.
Clothing hung from the building’s rafters and along its walls. Rags orange from years of Rwandan dust lined the floors between pews where they once clothed bodies.
A famous quote that has come to sum up Rwanda’s two-decade effort at reconciliation was printed on a purple and white banner and strung across the sanctuary: “If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”
Outside the church, near a giant hole in one wall where the perpetrators broke through, chickens pecked the red ground.
Both Symington and Rapp had been to Ntarama before. Prior to his appointment to lead the State Department’s war crimes office in 2009, Rapp was a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
He leaned down to wipe dirt from the blade of a machete, like the bones inside, left where it landed 20 years ago.
As our group continued on ahead of us, I asked Rapp what massacre sites like Ntarama meant to him, as someone who had worked for years to bring justice to the dead.
We were standing outside a church, after all. Where was God when this massacre was taking place?
“In my mind’s eye, I picture the bricks giving way and the people inside just waiting to die and I imagine the screams,” Rapp said. “But I never heard, in any of the recounting of what happened here, about people begging not to die.”
He paused, still moving dirt with his shoe.
“Asking where God was in all this is the wrong question,” he continued. “The right question is, ‘Where was man?’”
The Nazis' chaplains
At the time of my visit to Rwanda, much of the prison chaplains’ work was funded by Norwegian Church Aid, which has its roots in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.
In October 1945, as the world was confronting evidence of another genocide, Norway’s churches organized a way to share food aid coming into former Allied countries – France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece – with the destitute German people.
One month later, in Nuremberg, the Allies shared something else with Germans.
The U.S. Army assigned two of its own chaplains to minister to Hitler’s lieutenants, then on trial in the destroyed city’s Palace of Justice.
The Rev. Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran minister from St. Louis, and the Rev. Sixtus O’Connor, a Catholic priest from upstate New York, were asked to kneel down with the architects of the Holocaust and minister to them as they answered to the world for crimes against humanity.
Among them were Hermann Goering, Hans Frank, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Rudolf Hess: 21 Nazis in all.
Both American chaplains served during the war, and each had seen the Germans' crimes up close in the months since VE Day.
Gerecke had been to Dachau several times while stationed with the 98th General Hospital in Munich over the summer of 1945.
O’Connor had helped liberate Austria’s Mauthausen concentration camp in May 1945 as a chaplain with the 11th Armored Division. He conducted nearly 3,000 burial services in three weeks there.
That these two chaplains then spent a year in the Nuremberg prison, hoping to bring Nazis back to the Christian faith before they were executed, repulsed many Americans.
The concept of forgiveness in Christianity and Judaism is very different, but in both traditions the act of returning the wrongdoer to the good is central.
In Judaism that return requires the repentance of the wrongdoer and the participation – the forgiveness – of the person who was wronged.
Justice, as Princeton University scholar Leora Batnitzky has said, may be the supreme Jewish virtue. If the wrong committed was murder, forgiveness is impossible – from the murdered, but also from God.
Christian tradition says forgiveness precedes repentance.
Christians believe God has already forgiven them, atoned for their sins in the crucifixion of Jesus. But that concept must be strained by genocide.
Could Christians really believe that their God died to forgive those who conceived of a place like Mauthausen, where 100,000 people were tortured and murdered between 1939 and 1945?
Or like another church near Kigali, in Nyamata, where nearly 11,000 people barricaded themselves before the Interahamwe penetrated the walls, and where spattered blood still streaks the altar cloth.
How could Gerecke forgive Goering, who put Hitler’s “final solution” into place?
How could Gahigi forgive the 15 men who killed his sister using what he called “farming equipment”?
The answer is that these chaplains weren’t personally forgiving evil, but attempting a transformation. The evil deed isn’t forgiven. But, these chaplains believed, an evildoer can be returned from darkness to the good of his own light.
'Kill him after'
The chaplains of Prison Fellowship Rwanda have been attempting that transformation for nearly 20 years.
Like Gahigi, Gashagaza was out of the country during the genocide. When he returned home, his community was gone: 25 family members murdered.
His sister, her husband and their seven children had been killed. Like Gahigi, he was confused and angry.
“I was thinking, ‘Why?’” he said. “’Why did people die like animals? How and why?’”
A year later, Gashagaza was one of the first pastors to go into a Rwandan prison, this one in Butare in southern Rwanda near the Burundi border, and filled with 15,000 génocidaires. He was convinced God would protect him.
“So, I entered the prison, and the prisoners said, ‘Oh! How a guy like this man is still alive? Why did he not die? Kill him now!’” Gashagaza recounted.
“One said, ‘Please, let him finish his preaching. Kill him after.’ Inside my heart, I have a quiet prayer: ‘God, you are the one who sent me here. Protect me. This is not easy.’”
Gashagaza said he thought of Jesus on the cross.
“He said, ‘I forgive those who betrayed me, those who killed me.’ I gave them this message, and I told them, ‘Even though you are perpetrators of genocide, God still loves you. He needs your heart. He needs your change.’”
The prison chaplains have also led an effort at reconciliation – a series of discussions between génocidaires and survivors on topics such as confession, forgiveness and repentance.
If it’s obvious what the perpetrators get out of such meetings, it’s more difficult to understand how a survivor would benefit. In the end, the answer is surprisingly simple.
“Sleep,” Gashagaza told me. “Experiencing forgiveness gives peace.”
Tim Townsend is the author of “Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis,” which was published last month.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.