Ecumenism in Question: Rwanda’s Contentious Post-Genocide Religious Landscape

Andrea Mariko Grant. Journal of Southern African Studies. Volume 44, Issue 2. April 2018.


‘Don’t blame Kizito Mihigo’, Apostle Paul Gitwaza, the leader and founder of one of Rwanda’s most powerful new Pentecostal churches, declared in front of 23,000 Rwandans at Amahoro stadium, the national stadium in Kigali. Kizito Mihigo, a Catholic singer, genocide survivor, and unity and reconciliation activist, had just finished performing one of his songs, ‘Arc-en-ciel‘ (‘Rainbow’), for the very first Rwanda Shima Imana or Rwanda Thanksgiving Day in August 2012. Before singing, Mihigo had explained the song’s meaning, which articulated a certain understanding of God’s mercy. Gitwaza had not agreed with him. ‘He didn’t study theology like we did’, Gitwaza continued, addressing his fellow Protestant leaders sitting in the VIP section of the stadium. ‘He’s not a pastor, he’s not even a priest, the child is only a Christian singer’ (‘ntabwo ari umupasitori, nta n’ubwo ari padiri, ni umwana w’umuririmbyi w’umukirisitu gusa‘). The event, a crusade (igiterane) that purported to bring together the country’s Christians in a day of thanksgiving, was attended not only by prominent Protestant leaders but also by politicians, including the guest of honour, the prime minister of Rwanda. Noticeably absent were high-ranking representatives of the Catholic Church and the country’s Muslim community. Rwanda Thanksgiving Day was organised by Rwanda Purpose Driven Ministries/PEACE Plan, an interdenominational Christian organisation established in the country by the well-known American evangelist Rick Warren, who, with the blessing of President Paul Kagame, had christened Rwanda the world’s first ‘purpose-driven’ nation in 2005.

Although later dismissed by one of the event’s organisers as a ‘small incident that the media blew beyond proportion’, this exchange—and Mihigo’s response to Gitwaza’s comments—became one of the most discussed ‘beefs’ in the local Kinyarwanda-language media, sparking heated discussion on websites and radio shows, and in everyday conversation. By taking this dispute—and, more broadly, Rwanda Thanksgiving Day as an event—seriously, I aim to illustrate the continuing cleavages in Rwanda’s religious landscape, despite claims to unity and interdenominational co-operation. The 1994 genocide, which claimed the lives of roughly 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu, not only profoundly altered Rwanda’s spiritual terrain: religious leaders across denominations struggled with how best to understand and interpret its legacies. The authority of the historically dominant Catholic Church was challenged by its complicity in the violence, and, in the aftermath of the genocide, Tutsi pastors returned to Rwanda after decades in exile to establish new Pentecostal or abarokore (‘those who are saved’) churches. They criticised the Catholic Church for failing to teach about the dangers of demonic influence and the necessity of deliverance, using the Catholic Church as a foil against which to make certain kinds of spiritual claims. Yet while these new churches aimed to ‘heal’ the nation and minister to all Rwandans, they tended to be made up of specific groups of Tutsi returnees, calling into question their ability to administer a wider ecumenism—unity and reconciliation in the post-genocide era. To Catholic survivors, the Pentecostal churches’ tendency to understand the genocide in black-and-white terms did not adequately address its ambiguity, and the fact that, to some, the events of 1994 had paradoxically allowed for certain divine ‘fruits’ to be manifested. The Mihigo-Gitwaza debate was ultimately a conflict about power—who has the right, ability and authority to interpret the Bible and, by extension, Rwanda’s history and collective memory.

Rwanda Thanksgiving Day also demonstrated a new alignment between religious and secular authority: the Protestant and Pentecostal churches have displaced the Catholic Church in spiritually legitimising state power. Thus the post-genocide influx of transnational charismatic networks, far from working as ‘a conduit’ for the flow of ideas, practices and capital, is deftly managed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)-led state. Furthermore, the Mihigo-Gitwaza controversy foreshadowed the later downfall of Mihigo. In 2015, Mihigo, once considered an RPF propagandist, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiring to kill Kagame and overthrow the state. Yet, even in 2012, his comments at Rwanda Thanksgiving Day hinted at a willingness to challenge, however indirectly, prevailing government narratives about the meaning of the genocide.

Ultimately, this article illuminates the questionable possibilities for unity and reconciliation in Rwanda’s post-genocide era; the focus is on uncertainties in ecumenism, primarily between Pentecostals and Catholics. In authoritarian post-conflict contexts, I see ecumenism as profoundly precarious and dependent upon churches’ relationship with the state.

The Rise of the ‘New’ Churches

A brief history is useful to establish the present context, in which Rwanda’s churches and its government struggle with the country’s painful legacies of genocide. Rwanda was once considered ‘a model of evangelization in Africa’. Before the genocide, nearly 90 per cent of the population considered itself Christian, with 62.6 per cent Catholic, 18.8 per cent Protestant, 8.4 per cent Seventh-Day Adventist and 1.2 per cent Muslim. Yet during the genocide, clergy, catechists, nuns and other religious officials willingly participated in the killings, and churches and parishes became ‘Rwanda’s primary killing fields’.

The church in Rwanda—particularly the Catholic Church—has a long history of collusion with power. When the first Catholic missionaries, the White Fathers, arrived in the country at the beginning of the 20th century, they actively courted the political elite, in the hope that converting the powerful would then trigger conversions among the masses. On the ground, this strategy meant supporting the king (mwami) and the Tutsi elite, and contributed to reifying what were more flexible social categories associated with status and occupation into the rigid ethnic identities of Tutsi, Hutu and Twa. In the missionaries’ view—a view shared by colonial officials—Tutsi were the ‘natural’ rulers of the country, a lost tribe of Europeans who should rightfully rule over the simple Hutu and ‘savage’ Twa. Although poor Hutu and Tutsi were the ones who first converted, with the growing influence of the Catholic Church on the colonial state, especially after the country’s transfer to Belgian rule in 1916, Tutsi elites did convert en masse in the 1930s. Tutsi were given privileged access to education in Catholic and government schools, and, after administrative reforms beginning in the 1920s, ‘chieftaincies were reserved for Tutsi’.

After the Second World War, however, new attitudes about race and social justice, and a new influx of younger missionaries troubled by increasing ethnic inequality, led to changes in church positioning. New opportunities were created for Hutu within Catholic institutions, and a Hutu ‘counter-elite’ began to form, which challenged Tutsi dominance. This culminated in the so-called Hutu revolution (1959-61), which violently thrust Tutsi from power; the monarchy was abolished and Tutsi chiefs were replaced by Hutu. In 1962, Rwanda gained independence from Belgium, and Grégoire Kayibanda, a Hutu from Gitarama, who had been educated in Catholic seminaries and had once been the editor of the Catholic newspaper Kinyamateka, became Rwanda’s first president. The intimate relationship between church and state intensified under the presidency of Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu from the north who took control of the country in a military coup in 1973. For example, Vincent Nsengiyumva, the Catholic archbishop of Kigali, was an active committee member of Habyarimana’s political party, the Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour la Démocratie (MRND), and was said to be the personal confessor of Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe. Although, in the early 1990s, some within the Catholic and Protestant churches participated in the nascent democracy movement and pushed for social, political, and religious reform, their voices were sidelined, especially after the RPF, a mostly Tutsi rebel group, invaded the country from Uganda in 1990, sparking a civil war. Even after massacres of Tutsi and the increasing ethnic extremism of the political climate in the early 1990s, church leadership—of both the Catholic and Protestant churches—continued to support the state.

After the genocide erupted on 6 April, with the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane, national church leaders did not speak out to condemn the violence, thereby leaving ‘the way clear for officials, politicians, and propagandists to assert that the slaughter actually met with God’s favour’. In some cases, Hutu death squads, believing that their actions were sanctioned by their churches, ‘held mass before going out to kill’. Longman argues convincingly that the overall failure of the churches to speak out against ethnic violence and genocide can be traced back to the nature of the Christian message taught and received in Rwanda: it was not one of ‘love and fellowship’, but rather ‘one of obedience, division, and power’. While Catholic churches and their leaders may not have been directly involved in planning the genocide, they ‘played a central role in the creation and furtherance of racist ideology’, and helped to exacerbate ethnic identity into reified difference. A number of priests, nuns and religious leaders have since been convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and other national courts.

When the RPF stopped the genocide in July 1994 and took power, the country was devastated. This devastation extended into the spiritual realm. To say that the complicity of the churches, specifically the Catholic Church, engendered a crisis of faith after 1994 is an understatement. As Jean-Baptiste, an Anglican priest and genocide survivor, told me, the genocide ‘shook the complacency of the churches; people started questioning the kind of church we’ve had’.

In the years following the genocide, the Rwandan government was ‘mistrustful and even interventionist’ vis-à-vis the established churches, and in some cases interceded ‘in their internal disputes’. In fact, Longman argues that the the RPF, wary of the potential influence the churches could wield, ‘moved aggressively to bring [them] under its control’. In some cases, churches purposely appointed pro-RPF leaders; in others, the RPF forced churches to select their favoured candidates. Overall, this hostile stance towards the mainline churches ‘created a favourable climate for the founding of independent churches’, and the government reportedly saw them as an effective way to counter the hegemony of the Catholic Church. It is in this context that Pentecostal pastors began returning to Rwanda from Uganda, Congo, Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania to start churches. By 1996, there were at least 45 new denominations in Kigali, with many others outside the capital. From the very beginning, the Rwandan state was instrumental in creating the conditions under which these new churches could flourish.

Despite the abarokore churches’ claims to newness, however, it is important to point out that they were not the first to bring Pentecostalism to the country. The Pentecostal Church, known as the Association des Eglises de Pentecôte du Rwanda (ADEPR), first arrived in Rwanda in 1940 via Swedish missionaries stationed in the eastern part of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Its influence on the country’s spiritual landscape, however, was marginal, as it was overshadowed by the Catholic Church. Although ADEPR might have seemed a natural ally to the new Pentecostal pastors, returnee Tutsi pastors came into conflict with the Hutu-dominated leadership of ADEPR, which saw these new pastors as a ‘threat’. For their part, Tutsi pastors were suspicious of Hutu leaders and assumed that they had participated in the genocide if they had survived. In addition to ADEPR, another Pentecostal church had also existed in the country before the genocide: Rwanda Pentecostal Assemblies of God (AoG) started in 1990 in Kigali and registered with the government in 1993. One of the church’s pastors told me that, by the time the genocide started, AoG had 12 congregations across the country. During the genocide, the church lost three-quarters of its members.

Furthermore, with their emphasis on personal salvation, confession, repentance and evangelisation, the post-genocide abarokore churches shared similarities with the earlier East African Revival of the 1930s, whose members also called themselves the abarokore. In the 1980s, there had also been an abarokore resurgence within the Protestant churches, which had been part of a wider evangelical movement that had also included the Charismatic Renewal within the Catholic Church. These popular pietistic movements had emphasised personal salvation and a strict moral code, but had ultimately been co-opted or suppressed by their churches, or, in the case of the abarokore, suppressed by the state. Although some members and leaders of the new abarokore churches told me that they saw themselves as the inheritors of the East African Revival, none of them referenced the 1980s charismatic movement in Rwanda, as few of those involved in the post-genocide abarokore wave had been in the country at the time. Instead, with their focus on signs and wonders, the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts and transnational connections, the new churches saw themselves as forming part of a worldwide Pentecostal movement that has swept the globe since the 1980s.

As a final note, it is worth pointing out that, since the genocide, the mainline churches have for the most part shirked ‘institutional responsibility’, and the official position of the Catholic Church has been to blame individual Christians instead of admitting a wider culpability. This position was tempered somewhat in November 2016, when the Catholic Church of Rwanda apologised for its members’ involvement in the genocide. The Rwandan government was less than impressed, with Kagame questioning why the global Catholic Church had not apologised, considering the Pope has recently offered an apology to victims sexually abused by priests. Several months later, however, Kagame’s request was granted. In March 2017, Pope Francis met with the Rwandan president and asked for forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s role in the genocide. While this move was welcomed as a ‘positive step forward’ by the Rwandan government, Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s foreign minister, also stressed that ‘genocide denial and trivialisation continue to flourish in certain groups within the church and genocide suspects have been shielded from justice within Catholic institutions’. Since the genocide, the Catholic Church has been accused of helping suspected priests and nuns to flee Rwanda, and preventing them from being extradited to face justice.

New Conversions

What attracted Rwandans to these new Pentecostal churches? Some converted owing to a ‘feeling of betrayal and disillusionment with the “official” church’, and they appreciated the spiritual, social and often material support that the new churches offered. Others were pulled to the churches by their emphasis on live music and expressive worship styles; others by a ‘new’ theology that emphasised a close relationship with Jesus, miracles, deliverance and healing. As Claire, a convert to Pentecostalism who had been raped and impregnated during the genocide, told me, ‘I have seen amazing things that God has done in our daily life. We lived in a confused and traumatised life for so long but one thing I have seen is that it is only God who can carry you through trauma and hard life’. Not only had God healed all her diseases, she told me, but her Pentecostal faith allowed her to have a more personal relationship with the divine. She had conversations with God in her room and was able to ‘feel Him physically’. Instead of feeling like a victim of the ‘world-annihilating violence’ that she had suffered, she felt transformed and in control of her life; now people were calling her ‘boss’ and asking her for financial assistance, despite her meagre circumstances.

In 2005, Kubai wrote that there were more than 100 of these new churches. During my fieldwork, religious leaders claimed that there were more than 300. This number, however, was somewhat inflated. Between 2011 and 2013, 405 religious institutions attempted to register with the Rwandan Governance Board (RGB) to operate legally in Rwanda, yet only 221 were granted permission. Regardless, the turn away from the Catholic Church and embrace of Protestantism in all its forms was reflected in the most recent national census. The fourth Rwanda population and housing census (RPHC4), undertaken in 2012, found that, out of a population of 10.5 million, 44 per cent were Roman Catholic, 38 per cent Protestant, 12 per cent Adventist, 2 per cent Muslim and 1 per cent Jehovah’s Witnesses. Compared to the pre-genocide figures cited above—with Catholics at 62.6 per cent and Protestants at 18.8 per cent of the population—these were sizeable gains and losses. Although the 2012 census did not separate Pentecostalism from Protestantism, it is safe to assume that the rise in Protestant affiliation has been dramatically affected by the arrival of the new abarokore churches.

Indeed, as elsewhere on the continent, the ‘recent explosion’ of new Pentecostal churches in Rwanda influenced religious practice in the mainline churches. It was, as one Presbyterian leader told me, ‘like a big bang’. Although mainline churches had been ‘dormant’, the new churches roused them from their liturgical lethargy, and many of them began introducing more energetic singing, dancing and clapping into their services. Not only did their worship styles become more ‘charismatic’, mainline churches were also influenced by Pentecostal doctrine and began placing more of an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the importance of deliverance.

Blaming Catholics, ‘Hiding’ Ethnicity

Although mainline and new Pentecostal churches equally aim to heal the nation and rebuild Rwandan society after the genocide, deep rifts remain between denominations. When the new churches arrived, for example, they very vocally condemned the mainline churches for their complicity in the genocide. They did so not only because these accusations were well founded, as we saw, but also because it was a useful strategy to attract new members. One Pentecostal pastor who returned from Burundi with his church in 1995 recounted how he had vigorously preached against the ‘old’ religions, condemning them for their tradition and ritual and claiming that they had nothing to offer a traumatised Rwandan population. ‘We invented ourselves like that’, he told me—with a chuckle and knowing smile—and admitted that he had exaggerated the mainline churches’ involvement in the genocide deliberately to carve out a new space for his church in what was becoming a crowded spiritual marketplace. Other Pentecostal pastors blamed the Catholic Church for not teaching Rwandans sufficiently about demons. To these pastors, the genocide had been the result of demonic possession, and it was only through deliverance, a spiritual practice offered by the new Pentecostal churches, that the nation could truly be healed.

Yet, despite their flourishing, many Rwandans expressed concern about the nature of the new Pentecostal churches. Not only were they derided for being nothing more than money-making scams—a criticism that was not helped by the frequent in-fighting between pastors once a new church had become successful—especially in Kigali, they tended to be mono-ethnic, composed of particular groups of Tutsi returnees. Certain churches were known to be frequented by Tutsi who had returned from Burundi; others by returnees from Congo; yet others by those who had come back from Uganda. In a 1997 article, van’t Spijker had warned that the new churches threatened to introduce a new division into an already deeply divided Rwandan society: ‘the organization of churches along ethnic lines’. Although in the past ‘no church ever counted uniquely Hutu or Tutsi to its membership’, by the time of my fieldwork, the mono-ethnic nature of the new churches seemed to have become an unspeakable ‘truth’. As Jean-Baptiste explained to me: ‘let me tell you something that no one will tell you, because very often we are afraid of saying it bluntly. You will find that most of the new churches, we call Pentecostals, they tend to be Tutsi in majority’.

To Jean-Baptiste, because returnees shared similar experiences, culture and language, it was unsurprising that they tended to worship together in the same churches. This reality, however, severely challenged their ability to contribute to unity and reconciliation in the post-genocide era. As he asked me provocatively, who exactly was reconciling with whom in these churches? Which demons were really being cast out?

With this complex religious context in mind, I turn now to the uncertainties of ecumenism revealed during Rwanda Thanksgiving Day.

The New Churches and the State: Kagame and Rick Warren

How did Rick Warren, best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life and founder of one of America’s largest churches, Saddleback Church in southern California, become a visible player in Rwanda’s evangelical Christian movement? Kagame was reportedly given an autographed copy of The Purpose Driven Life by one of Warren’s staff members in 2004. After reading it, the president wrote a letter to Warren declaring, ‘I am a purpose-driven man’, and invited his team to Kigali where they ‘jointly’ decided to make Rwanda the world’s first purpose-driven nation in July 2005.

According to Frank, a Rwandan PEACE Plan official, the organisation’s mantra is ‘ordinary people empowered by the spirit to do extraordinary things’. The PEACE Plan is concerned with transforming people’s ‘minds’ so that their potential could be unlocked. It accomplishes this through a wide-ranging training and mentorship programme. Soon after the PEACE Plan’s public launch, for example, trainers from Saddleback arrived to mentor an interdenominational group of Rwandan pastors and church leaders in all things peace-related, from leadership and management to purpose-driven strategy and preaching. ‘We teach people to look within themselves, the church to look within itself, there are potentials there … They need just to have their mind right, their mindset right’, Frank explained. This ‘right mindset’ would ensure that Christians would never again allow genocide to happen in the country. To this end, Frank told me that the most important contribution that the PEACE Plan has made in Rwanda was uniting church leadership. Instead of working on their own projects in ‘isolation’, the country’s Protestant churches were now able to operate together under the interdenominational PEACE Plan umbrella and consider Rwanda as ‘one parish’. Significantly, this umbrella excluded the Catholic Church, as its ‘structures’ made working with them too difficult.

Yet this ‘right mindset’ that the PEACE Plan sought to cultivate dovetailed considerably with government ideology. Take, for example, the prayer offered by Warren at Kagame’s second presidential inauguration in September 2010 at Amahoro stadium. Warren was one of three religious leaders to offer special prayers for Kagame. He was the only Protestant and the only foreigner. When it came to his turn to speak, Warren greeted the 60,000-strong crowd in Kinyarwanda and, holding up his Rwandan passport, declared, ‘ndi mu rugo‘ (I’m at home). He then invited the audience to stand, stretch their arms out towards Kagame, and join him in praying for their leader. Part of Warren’s prayer went as follows:

you have said in your word, ‘blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord’. And help all Rwandans to remember that only God is God. And when critics seek to discourage, si bo Imana [they are not God]. And when other nations pressure Rwanda to give up its values, si bo Imana. And when outsiders assume that they know what Rwandans should do, si bo Imana. Only you are God. These people know where they came from, they know what they want, and they know you are God …

Warren’s prayer is remarkable in the way that it echoes Kagame’s own stance towards his critics. Banking on a certain ‘genocide credit’, Kagame frequently claims that no one has the ‘moral right’ to criticise Rwanda and his vision for the country. Alongside former British prime minister Tony Blair and Starbucks chief executive officer Howard Schultz, Warren has become one of Kagame’s most vocal western supporters. While critics decry Kagame’s human rights abuses, a clique of powerful friends help to position the president as ‘the global elite’s favorite strongman’, claiming that he has brought peace and stability to a troubled region. Warren lends spiritual legitimacy to this claim. Relying on biblical authority, he declares that only God can judge Rwanda, not ‘critics’, not other nations, not ‘outsiders’. Kagame’s rule is ‘blessed’ and therefore above all secular authority.

In what follows, I argue that Rwanda Thanksgiving Day can equally be understood as an attempt to spiritually legitimise the RPF regime. The event suggested that any ecumenical initiative must play out according to the terms laid out by the RPF. In other words, ecumenism in the country seems to be possible only when it involves providing spiritual authority to the government’s particular vision for the country’s post-genocide development. Yet, as we will see, the crusade did not go exactly according to plan.

Rwanda Thanksgiving Day: ‘Yesu ashimwe!’

The intended purpose of Rwanda Thanksgiving Day was to bring the country’s Christian communities together to thank God for all He has done in and for Rwanda. It was not an attempt to ‘heal’ or ‘deliver’ the nation from unseen evils, as has been examined elsewhere, but rather focused on thanksgiving, taking its inspiration from Proverbs 126:3: ‘[t]he Lord has done great things for us; and we are glad'(Uwiteka yadukoreye ibikomeye, natwe turishimye). As Frank explained to me, Rwanda Thanksgiving Day aimed to instill the ‘culture of thanking God’ in Rwandans and to tell them, ‘be positive, don’t focus on what doesn’t work, on the weaknesses within the country, focus on what God is doing and thank Him for that—and then pray for the rest’. Another PEACE Plan representative explained to me that the event had been inspired by both scripture and traditional Rwandan culture. Not only did the Bible describe the Pentecost as a day of harvest (Exodus 23: 16), in the past Rwandans had celebrated a day of harvest (umunsi w’umuganura) in August.

Although the day-long crusade involved performances by a number of choirs, including the well-respected Seventh-Day Adventist choir, Ambassadors of Christ, and the Rwanda Defence Force army jazz band, to mention only a few, the culmination of the day’s activities was a number of official speeches, first by Anglican Church leaders and then by politicians. The master of ceremonies was Apostle Paul Gitwaza, head of one of the country’s most prominent new Pentecostal churches, Zion Temple Celebration Centre. The religious leaders who spoke—Emmanuel Kolini, the former archbishop of the Anglican Church and the PEACE Plan chairman; Onesphore Rwaje, the archbishop of the Anglican Church; Geoffrey Rwubusisi, the former Anglican bishop of Cyangugu—all urged Rwandans to thank God for the country’s development and good governance. It was God’s grace, they emphasised, that had allowed the country to rebuild after the genocide. They thanked God for giving Rwanda various government programmes, including the Agaciro Development Fund, which encourages Rwandans to donate money ‘voluntarily’ to the government for unspecified national programmes; health insurance (mutuelle de santé); girinka, the one-cow-per-family programme; ubudehe, a programme of community works; gacaca, the community courts established to try cases of genocide; and the umurenge SACCOs programme, which introduced saving and credit co-operative societies (SACCO) at the level of each administrative sector (umurenge).

In a similar spirit, James Musoni, the minister of local government, thanked God for the country’s development. ‘When you look at what the country went through and where it is today, there’s a lot for Rwanda to be thankful to God to’, he declared. ‘God has been so kind to this nation and helped rebuild it’.

The guest of honour was Dr Pierre Damien Habumuremyi, then the prime minister of Rwanda. Frank told me that Kagame himself had been invited but pulled out at the last minute. ‘Yesu ashimwe!‘ (‘Praise Jesus!’), Habumuremyi declared, using the standard Pentecostal greeting when he took his place behind the podium, much to the crowd’s delight. Habumuremyi delivered a message from Kagame. The president, he said, ‘will use all the power God gave him to continue bringing together all Rwandans’ (‘azakoresha imbaraga zose Imana yamuhaye akomeza guhuza Abanyarwanda‘). Habumuremyi had his own message for the crowd. ‘Rwandans have now woken up and are indeed committed to building their nation’, he asserted. ‘We have a reason to thank God, He no longer only spends daytime and sleeps in Rwanda like they used to say, God is always in Rwanda day and night’.

A New RPF-Protestant Axis?

By aligning the country’s development and reconstruction with the will of God, the religious leaders and politicians who spoke at Rwanda Thanksgiving Day implicitly offered spiritual legitimacy to Kagame’s regime. In this respect, they echoed Warren’s prayer discussed above. It was under the guidance of Kagame and the RPF, after all, that Rwanda’s ‘miraculous’ recovery became possible. By connecting God with the RPF state, power became divinely inflected, recalling the pre-colonial dynastic kingdoms wherein the mwami (king) was understood as ‘the source and symbol of all authority’ and ‘the eye through which God look[ed] upon Ruanda’.

We can see here, too, clear resonances between the Protestant-RPF axis and that formed between the Catholic Church and the Kayibanda and Habyarimana regimes. Under Habyarimana, the mainline churches, particularly the Catholic Church, ‘openly supported state goals and praised state achievements’, while the regime itself looked to the churches for ‘legitimacy’ and popular support. In this way, the mainline churches ‘helped to maintain order, integrating the population into the social system and teaching obedience to authority’. We can identify a very similar dynamic with the RPF state and the Protestant churches, despite the fact that the RPF has staked its own political legitimacy upon its supposed ‘break’ with the former regimes.

Despite this disquieting historical continuity, PEACE Plan officials proclaimed the inaugural Rwanda Thanksgiving Day an overwhelming success. A 2013 country report on Rwanda made the following pronouncement:

[t]he relationship between the government and the church that has been established and reinforced by The PEACE Plan will continue to be an important element that weaves the country of Rwanda together. As Shima Imana continues to be celebrated for decades to come, Rwandans will participate in this newfound tradition of national unity and gratitude for the country’s destiny of restoration, greatness, and purpose.

Indeed, in 2016 it was announced that Rwanda Shima Imana would be held at the sector level, ensuring that Rwandans across the country would be reached.

Yet, as I discuss below, at the inaugural Rwanda Thanksgiving Day, the Rwandan public took an altogether different message away from the event. A heated dispute between Gitwaza and Mihigo revealed the fractious nature of the country’s religious landscape, despite outward claims to unity.

‘Gitwaza, Mihigo Kizito Disagree on God’s Mercy’

As I outlined briefly in the opening paragraph, the spat between Gitwaza and Mihigo centred on the interpretation of one of Mihigo’s songs. Mihigo, it will be remembered, was the only Catholic involved in the proceedings. When he arrived on stage to perform the song ‘Arc-en- ciel‘ (‘Rainbow’), he first made a few comments about the song’s meaning. Since the song was composed mainly in French, Mihigo told me after the event that he had wanted to make sure that everyone in the audience understood it in the ‘right’ way. He was worried, in fact, that some listeners would assume that the rainbow he referred to was Kagame, and that he had written the song to praise the president. This interpretation would not have been surprising given the close relationship that Mihigo had at the time with Kagame and the RPF. Not only was Mihigo sent to study music in Europe allegedly through the personal intervention of Kagame, his very public promotion of unity and reconciliation—particularly through the non-profit organisation that he founded in 2010, Kizito Mihigo for Peace (KMP) Foundation, which held concerts and artistic events in secondary schools and prisons around the country—has often led to criticisms that some of his songs were RPF propaganda. Indeed, although Mihigo started out as a Catholic liturgical singer and composer, more recently he had turned to composing and performing songs that supported particular government programmes and policies. Yet this close relationship broke down when Mihigo released a controversial song for the 20th anniversary of the genocide and was imprisoned, much to the shock of the Rwandan public. I will have more to say about this below.

In order to prevent any confusion about the song’s meaning and intention, Mihigo explained that ‘Arc-en-ciel‘ was about God’s mercy. ‘In the Old Testament, before Jesus, the Bible clearly shows that sometimes God can be extremely angry such that he kills his people’, Mihigo told the audience. He then gave a number of biblical examples to support his claim. In Genesis 6, God sent a flood that killed everyone except Noah and his family; in Exodus 11, God decreed that every firstborn in Egypt should be killed because the Egyptians had refused to let the Israelites go; and, in Exodus 14, God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites but then drowned the Egyptian soldiers who had pursued them.

Yet after such destruction, Mihigo continued, God showed His mercy. After the flood, God sent a rainbow to Noah. In Mihigo’s interpretation, the rainbow had been ‘a sign that He was going to be more forgiving of people’ (‘ikimenyetso cy’uko igiye kuzajya ibabarira abantu‘) and illustrated God’s desire ‘to be a merciful God rather than an angry God’ (‘Imana Nyirimbabazi mbere yo kuba Imana Nyiruburakari‘). This mercy was manifested most clearly in Jesus, who had suffered on the cross but was then resurrected for the salvation of all mankind. ‘In this way’, Mihigo told the crowd at Amahoro stadium, ‘Jesus is the extraordinary rainbow, He is the one I’m going to sing about so that He visits Rwanda and gives us forgiveness and peace’. He then performed the song, which was composed mostly in French, with verses three and five in Kinyarwanda. For brevity’s sake, I reproduce only the chorus and verses three and five:


Rainbow, sign of hope
Rainbow, a call to unity
Rainbow, come visit Rwanda
Bring us forgiveness and peace
Rainbow, come visit Rwanda
Bring us love and unity

Verse 3

Come, Lord Jesus teach us to love you
So that we could also love each other as brothers
Teach us to forgive
You will be the pillar of our life
Teach us to forgive
You will be the pillar of our life

Verse 5

Our reason to love Rwanda
is that our country has a testimony
A testimony that tells all of humanity
that love does not die
A testimony that tells the whole world
that unity is possible

After Mihigo’s performance, Gitwaza, the master of ceremonies, took a moment to comment on Mihigo’s explanation of the song. ‘I would like to first correct Kizito Mihigo regarding what he said about God having killed people’, Gitwaza began. ‘God never kills His people; in fact, it’s Satan who kills them. When killing occurs, Satan is the one who kills, not God’. Gitwaza then went on, as we saw above, to instruct the audience not to ‘blame’ Mihigo for his comments as he was neither a pastor nor a priest.

When Mihigo returned to the stage later in the afternoon to perform another song, he responded to Gitwaza’s remarks. ‘Brother Gitwaza’, he said, ‘it seems that you did not understand what I said. I did not say that God is mean, on the contrary, I said that the side of Him that is of peace and love became much more evident when Jesus arrived’. He continued, ‘[a]t an event like this that brings together people from different beliefs, there ought not to be a person coming across as a teacher correcting everyone, because it would be like trying to bring us into his church’. ‘Me, I’m an artist from the Catholic Church, but I joined with you because I like the values of unity’, he concluded.

The Controversy

In the days following Rwanda Thanksgiving Day, the event received an enormous amount of attention in the Kinyarwanda-language media. A journalist friend told me that an article about the Gitwaza-Mihigo spat was the most viewed article in the past three years on the website, the country’s most widely read website. More than 700 readers left comments. Public reaction was divided. On the one hand, some Rwandans thought that Gitwaza had crossed the line by correcting Mihigo in such a public manner. Why, they asked, did Gitwaza, a self-proclaimed ‘apostle’, think he was the sole authority on the Bible? ‘You told him for me’ (yaramumbwiriye), some encouraged Mihigo. Supporters of Gitwaza countered that Mihigo should not have contradicted him. As his spiritual elder, Gitwaza had only been trying to help Mihigo (yamufashije) and, in his own way, to make sure that the audience did not leave with the ‘wrong’ interpretation.

The incident revealed the contested nature of the spiritual landscape in Rwanda, despite the PEACE Plan’s attempts to present a united front. The Gitwaza-Mihigo conflict had not been the only moment of controversy. To non-Pentecostal believers in the audience, the fact that Habumuremyi had greeted the crowd as a Pentecostal (‘Yesu ashimwe!’) suggested an uncomfortable alliance between the state and the new Pentecostal churches. Catholics greeted each other with ‘Yezu akuzwe‘ (‘Jesus is forever’)—to which the proper response is ‘Iteka‘ (‘Forever’)—and by adopting the new Pentecostal salutation, many felt that Habumuremyi, in his role as the representative of Rwanda’s highest office, was implicitly excluding non-Pentecostals from the community he was addressing. In addition to introducing new salutations, the Pentecostal churches have also created new terms and phrases to define the boundaries of their faith. Anyone who is not Pentecostal is referred to as ‘ntabwo arakizwa‘, meaning he or she is not saved. In this terminology, only Pentecostals are saved, and anyone else, from Catholics and mainline Protestants to Muslims, are pagans (abapagani).

Mihigo’s comments suggested a more nuanced understanding of good and evil, one that did not set up a strict dichotomy—Satan kills, God does not—but rather introduced a way of looking at the world that saw good and evil as intimately connected, no matter how absolute the evil. This understanding, I suggest, reflects Mihigo’s own experience of the genocide, a testimony that he often shared through his KMP Foundation. Mihigo’s father was killed during the genocide by the father of his best friend. After many years of reflection, Mihigo eventually decided to forgive his childhood friend, tracking her down and sharing a meal with her. This process taught Mihigo that Rwandans had been given a particularly powerful testimony of peace and reconciliation; because they had suffered through and survived the genocide, they knew first-hand what it was like to live without mercy and forgiveness. On a spiritual level, this embodied knowledge helped them to comprehend the mission of Christ better. As he told me, ‘the person who has suffered the most, who has endured hate much more than others, it’s he who can testify about love the most’. This suffering created not only a greater love of God, but also of country. As the lyrics in verse five of ‘Arc-en-ciel‘ declare, ‘Our reason to love Rwanda is that our country has a testimony’.

To Mihigo, Rwandans who had grown up outside the country—like Gitwaza, who had grown up in the eastern Congo—could never fully comprehend the cataclysm and complete destruction of the genocide. While the genocide may have been an absolute evil, it also, paradoxically, allowed for the possibility of new ‘fruits’, as Mihigo called them, to be born. This is what Mihigo had been getting at with his explanation of ‘Arc-en-ciel‘. After the flood, there had been a rainbow. Only those who had directly witnessed and lived through the destruction caused by the flood could understand and testify to both the nature of destruction and rebirth, evil and peace. The two went hand in hand. To frame it in Christian terms, Mihigo considered the genocide ‘the cross of Rwanda’, which, although a symbol of unimaginable suffering, was also that which allows for resurrection and, in some cases, new hope and possibility.

This disconcerting sense of opportunities born from overwhelming loss was expressed to me by other survivors. Bernadette, a genocide rape survivor, told me that before the genocide her husband had often warned her that he was going to die, correctly—and tragically—reading the tense political climate at the time. Bernadette’s biggest fear was to be widowed; she had vowed to herself that if her husband died, she would hang herself. When the genocide occurred, her husband and many of her family members were killed. Although her fear was realised and she became a widow, there was a crucial difference—the genocide had made many women around her widows as well. In this way, she explained that the genocide was ‘kind of positive’ for her. Paradoxically, death—in particular, the systematic killing of men as husbands and fathers—had given her life and a new community founded on the mutual experience of loss. ‘If it [becoming a widow] had happened to me alone’, she told me, ‘I would have hung myself’.

This was an incredibly complex, poignant and paradoxical understanding of the genocide and God’s mercy. Bernadette, who was raised as a Catholic but converted to ADEPR after the genocide, found solace in the fact that God had at once taken away everything but remained with her. She had lost her husband and her family, but she was not alone in her suffering; she had left the Catholic faith, but other ADEPR members became new family members. To some survivors, the fact that the vast majority of the new Pentecostal churches were founded by returnees severely limited their ability not only to minister to Rwandans who had been born and raised in the country, Hutu and Tutsi alike, but also to help to rebuild the country and contribute to reconciliation.

‘Genocidal Discourse’ and Controlling Spiritual Meaning

If the new Pentecostal churches tried to draw interpretive boundaries around the spiritual meaning of the genocide, so too did the Rwandan state. The view espoused by Mihigo—and then ‘corrected’ by Gitwaza—that God’s mercy and, by extension, the country’s past, was more grey than black-and-white, and that, paradoxically, ‘fruits’ could be born from absolute evil, was highly controversial. Not only did it spark heated debate after Rwanda Thanksgiving Day, as we saw, it was also targeted as a type of reasoning associated with ‘genocidal discourse’ in a 2011 report issued by the Media High Council, the government body that controls and regulates Rwanda’s media. The document was an attempt to control the language that journalists are allowed to use when speaking about the genocide and Rwanda’s past more broadly. One of the examples that the report highlighted was an interview given by a pastor on a radio programme broadcast on Voice of Hope for the commemoration period of April 2010. Articulating views very similar to Mihigo’s, the pastor spoke about burying loved ones who had died during the genocide. He told listeners that, when burying their loved ones, they should remember that ‘there is a specific kind of blessing after the genocide’. The pastor went on to explain that God did not take one’s loved ones as bones but rather gave them new bodies that will never perish.

The report’s writers, however, did not agree with the pastor’s interpretation. ‘This might be part of encouraging and soothing discourse for believers’, they wrote, ‘but for non believers [sic] this might sound a form of disrespect for one’s relatives that were murdered during the Genocide’. Indeed, the report tells us that, when speaking of remembering lost loved ones, the phrase kuzura akaboze (‘to resurrect those who have perished’) is not to be used. Kuzura, with its religious associations—one would use the word to describe how Jesus resurrected Lazarus (Yezu yazuye Lazaro), for example—goes against the state’s attempts to construct the genocide as a secular political event. Instead, one is instructed to say, ‘to commemorate our loved ones lost in the genocide against the Tutsis’ (‘kwibuka abacu bazize Jenoside yakorewe Abatutsi‘). One is not to refer to the remains of the dead as ‘bones’ (amagufa) but rather ‘the bodies of those who died in the genocide against the Tutsi’ (‘imbiri y’abazize jenoside yakorewe abatutsi). One buries these lost loved ones not in a ‘cemetery’ (amarimbi) but in ‘genocide memorials’ (inzibutso za Jenoside). In this way, even the bodies of the dead become politicised; they gain meaning through their relationship to official state doctrine and spaces.

Although the report was ostensibly an effort to control language use and prevent genocide negation, we see that here it was also indirectly an attempt by the state to control spiritual interpretation. A similar logic was at work, I suggest, with Gitwaza’s comments and his ‘correction’ of Mihigo. Why, we might ask, is it dangerous for survivors to claim that ‘fruits’ can come after the genocide, or for pastors to argue that it also allowed for ‘a specific kind of blessing’? I suggest that both the new Pentecostal churches and the state attempt to control how the genocide is understood and interpreted, not to create unity and reconciliation but rather to legitimise and shore up their own claims to power. If genocidal discourse was not a constant threat, then the state would have no reason to police freedom of speech or severely limit political opposition. If the Catholic Church and the mainline churches were not universally responsible for the genocide, then Pentecostal churches would have no moral high ground, and their claims to offer believers something ‘new’ would be less convincing.

To new Pentecostals, however, the fact that Rwanda’s religious field was more open, that more spiritual options were available to believers, was a positive development. As Frank, the PEACE Plan representative, told me:

in Rwanda, we haven’t reached a saturation of churches, so we need as many churches as we can to evangelise the whole [of] Rwanda and to reach out to every Rwandan. It takes all sorts of churches to reach out to all sorts of people…. But at the end of the day what matters most is are they going to church? Number two, are they getting the right message? Number three, are they transformed? Is any transformation happening in their lives? If those are not happening, then there’s a problem.

Yet the proliferation of new churches also implied the proliferation of new assertions of moral authority and claims that one’s church was the sole purveyor of the ‘right’ message. As a Muslim leader confided in me, ‘I can anticipate having a problem of religions in this country … because everybody claims to be the right one, and everybody is just campaigning to get followers from the same 10 million’ (Rwanda’s population). How, in the end, could one measure ‘transformation’, often referred to using the Kinyarwanda verb guhindura, to change? If the intended goal of the PEACE Plan and Rwanda Thanksgiving Day was to change the ‘mindset’ of Rwandans, how was it possible to know if this transformation had succeeded? This, I suggest, was perhaps the most pressing question faced by all religious institutions in the country. How could they be absolutely certain that their message was the ‘right’ one and, more worrying still, that it was being interpreted as they intended it to be? In such a context, as the controversies surrounding Rwanda Thanksgiving Day demonstrate, ecumenism risked becoming a precarious—and state-directed—enterprise.


While transnational evangelical networks are highly visible on Rwanda’s charismatic Christian scene, these engagements are played out on the RPF’s terms, and spiritual leaders, both local and foreign, offer spiritual legitimacy to Kagame’s regime. Ironically, at Rwanda Thanksgiving Day, an event that was supposed to demonstrate the unity of the churches, a disagreement about God’s mercy revealed the uncertainties of ecumenism in the post-genocide period. The controversy over the Gitwaza-Mihigo spat suggested that some Rwanda survivors, both Catholic and ADEPR converts, were uneasy about the new Pentecostal churches’ claims to spiritual authority. We can see, in fact, how the black-and-white approach to morality espoused by the new churches—Satan kills, God saves—mimicked the political ideology of the RPF: it alone had brought ‘good’ governance to a country once ruled by corruption and ethnic politics. Just as the RPF constructs itself as the sole purveyor of historical truth, so do the abarokore pastors equally position themselves as the authentic mediators of biblical truth.

In 2014, Mihigo released a song for the 20th anniversary of the genocide that further demonstrated how strictly the past was policed. In the song, ‘Igisobanuro cy’urupfu‘ (‘The meaning of death’), Mihigo sings that those whose lives were ‘brutally taken’ in acts ‘not qualified as genocide’ equally deserve to be remembered. These statements directly contravened the ‘official’ government narrative about the genocide, in which Tutsi are the sole victims and the perpetrators Hutu. Although Mihigo, as we saw, was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison for planning to kill Kagame and overthrow the government, many believe that these charges were trumped up, and ‘Igisobanuro cy’urupfu‘ was the real reason he was imprisoned. The song has since been banned in Rwanda. Yet we might say that it hinted at an alternative understanding of ecumenism, one where Christians were called upon to place their ‘humanity’ (ubumuntu) ahead of their Rwandan identity. ‘Let I am Rwandan be preceded by I am a human’ (‘Ndi umunyarwanda ijye ibanzirizwa na ndi umuntu‘), Mihigo sings in one of the song’s verses. The expansiveness of this vision—to see Hutu equally as victims of the genocide, not to allow love of country blind one to the suffering of others—seemed to contrast sharply with state and abarokore attempts to limit exactly who should be included within particular forms of community.

To conclude, although recent scholarship has emphasised the creativity and potentiality of healing in Pentecostal practice—Shaw has written eloquently about how Pentecostal practice allows displaced Sierra Leonean youth to transform ‘demonic memory into Pentecostal memory’—we must also be attendant to the boundaries and limits imposed upon the ‘saved’. While the recent boom of Pentecostalism in Africa can be attributed in part to its less formal, more ‘live and direct’ worship style, one of the ways it creates community is through negation and exclusion—it is equally about what one is not supposed to believe, what one is not supposed to say, and how one is not supposed to act. Much as Pentecostal practice provides a ‘relanguaging’ or a ‘renarration’, allowing believers to reshape their past to create a ‘meaningful present’, these new languages and narrative techniques are neither neutral nor all-inclusive; they offer very particular vocabularies that exclude others and divergent interpretations, making ecumenism a precarious possibility indeed. These exclusionary tendencies are of course equally present in other religious denominations, but the ‘hidden’ ethnic make-up of the new churches in Rwanda make rigid boundaries between the saved and unsaved particularly problematic for the country’s efforts at reconciliation. In such a context, then, we must pay particular attention to the negative aspects of Pentecostal practice, about who it excludes and why, and how these exclusions are performed. Equally important, however, is to examine how other Christians work to overcome these divisions, and create new communities often based, paradoxically, on the generative experience of loss. By paying attention to both of these dynamics, perhaps we can reach a better understanding of the possibilities—and uncertainties—of ecumenism in post-conflict contexts.