Religion in Rwanda

Christianity is the largest religion in Rwanda. The most recent statistics on religion were published by the US Government in 2013, yet the source information dates back to the national Census of 2002, which reports that: 56.9% of the Rwanda's population is Roman Catholic, 26 % is Protestant, 11.1% is Seventh-day Adventist, 4.6% is Muslim (mainly Sunni), 1.7% claims no or other religious affiliation, and 0.1% practices traditional indigenous beliefs.[1]

Religion in Rwanda (2002 Census)[1]

  Catholicism (56.9%)
  Protestantism (26.0%)
  Islam (4.6%)
  Others (1.4%)

The figures for Protestants include the growing number of members of Jehovah's Witnesses (36,000 in 2013) and evangelical Protestant groups.[1] There is also a small population of Baha'is. There has been a proliferation of small, usually Christian-linked schismatic religious groups since the 1994 genocide.[1]

There are small and secretive communities of Hindus and Buddhists, comprising mostly foreign adherents, typically businessmen from China and India as well as university professors and students. Neither religion seriously attempts conversion in Rwanda or has places of worship.[2]

Current context

Foreign missionaries and church-linked nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of various religious groups operate in the country.[1] Foreign missionaries openly promote their religious beliefs, and the Government welcomes their development assistance.[1]

The Constitution of Rwanda provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.[1] Local government officials sometimes detain Jehovah's Witnesses for refusing to participate in security patrols.[1] In 2007, the US government received no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice.[1]


Colonial period

Although the ethnic divisions and tensions between Hutu and Tutsi predate the colonial era, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) report on the genocide states,

In the colonial era, under German and then Belgian rule, Roman Catholic missionaries, inspired by the overtly racist theories of 19th century Europe, concocted a destructive ideology of ethnic cleavage and racial ranking that attributed superior qualities to the country's Tutsi minority, since the missionaries ran the colonial-era schools, these pernicious values were systematically transmitted to several generations of Rwandans…[3]

When the Roman Catholic missionaries came to Rwanda in the late 1880s, they contributed to the "Hamitic" theory of race origins, which taught that the Tutsi were a superior race. The Church has been considered to have played a significant role in fomenting racial divisions between Hutu and Tutsi, in part because they found more willing converts among the majority Hutu.[4]

Role of religion in 1994 genocide

An estimated 800,000 Rwandans died during ethnic violence over a brief span of 100 days between April and July 1994.[5] Most of the dead were Tutsis, and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus.

The genocide started after the death of the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, in the shooting down of his plane above Kigali airport on 6 April 1994. The full details of that specific incident remain unclear; however, the death of the president was by no means the only cause of the mayhem. (Ethnic tension in Rwanda is not new. Disagreements between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis are common, but the animosity between them grew substantially after the end of the Belgian colonial regime.)

Timothy Longman has provided the most detailed discussion of the role of religion in the Rwandan genocide in Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda, published in 2010.[6] Longman argues that both Catholic and Protestant churches helped to make the genocide possible by giving moral sanction to the killing. Churches had longed played ethnic politics themselves, favoring the Tutsi during the colonial period then switching allegiance to the Hutu after 1959, sending a message that ethnic discrimination was consistent with church teaching. The church leaders had close ties with the political leaders, and after the genocide began, the church leaders called on the population to support the new interim government, the very government supporting the genocide.

At the same time, churches did not uniformly support the genocide. In the period leading up to the genocide, 1990–1994, major splits emerged within most churches between moderates who promoted democratic change and conservatives allied with the Habyarimana regime. Many of the clergy were Tutsi, and they generally supported democratic reform, but many moderate Hutu within the churches supported reform as well. Churches provided major support to the formation of the new human-rights groups that emerged in the early 1990s. When the genocide began in 1994, some clergy and other church leaders opposed the violence,[7] even at the risk of their own lives.[8]

Some individual members of the religious community attempted to protect civilians, sometimes at great risk to themselves. For example, Mgr. Thaddée Ntihinyurwa of Cyangugu preached against the genocide from the pulpit and tried unsuccessfully to rescue three Tutsi religious brothers from an attack, while Sr. Felicitas Niyitegeka of the Auxiliaires de l’Apostolat in Gisenyi smuggled Tutsi across the border into Zaire before a militant militia executed her in retaliation.[9][10]

In her book Left to Tell: Discovering God in the Rwandan Holocaust (2006), Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Tutsi woman, describes hiding with seven other Tutsi women for 91 days in a bathroom in the house of Pastor Murinzi - for the majority of the genocide. At the St Paul Pastoral Centre in Kigali about 2,000 people found refuge and most of them survived, due to the efforts of Fr Célestin Hakizimana. This priest "intervened at every attempt by the militia to abduct or murder" the refugees in his centre. In the face of powerful opposition, he tried to hold off the killers with persuasion or bribes.[11]

On November 20, 2016, the Catholic Church in Rwanda released a statement signed by nine bishops apologizing for the role of its members in the genocide of 1994.[12]

See also


  1. International Religious Freedom Report, 2013: Rwanda, United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Retrieved 2019-05-25 ; International Religious Freedom Report, 2011: Rwanda, United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Retrieved 2019-05-25. This article incorporates text from these sources, which are in the public domain.
  2. Adekunle, Julius (2007). Culture and Customs of Rwanda. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 40. ISBN 9780313331770.
  3. "Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide", Organization of African Unity, 7 July 2000
  4. "Dictionary of Genocide", Samuel Totten, Paul Robert Bartrop, Steven L. Jacobs, p. 380, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008, ISBN 0-313-34644-5
  6. Timothy Longman, Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  7. Longman, Timothy (2010). Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda. African Studies. 112. Cambridge University Press. p. 322. ISBN 9780521191395. Retrieved 2013-04-10. [...] among the first acts of the genocide was for the regime that benefited from the support of church leaders to target these sources of opposition, such as the Jesuit Centre Christus in Kigali.
  8. Longman, Timothy (2010). "Christian Churches and Genocide (1993-1994)". Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda. African Studies. 112. Cambridge University Press. p. 189. ISBN 9780521191395. Retrieved 2013-04-10. Some of the early targets included progressive elements in the churches. One of the first places the death squads hit on April 7 was the Centre Christus, a Jesuit retreat center which had a mission of seeking ethnic reconciliation and helping the poor and vulnerable. Around 7 a.m., a group of six soldiers arrived at the center and rounded up those present. They divided the Rwandans from the European priests and nuns, and in a separate room they shot all seventeen Rwandans, a mixed group of Hutu and Tutsi [...]
  9. The Organization (HRW Report - Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, March 1999)
  10. "Foundation Felicitas Niyitegeka 1934-1994". Retrieved July 5, 2017.
  11. Kubai, Anne (April 2007). "Walking a Tightrope: Christians and Muslims in Post-Genocide Rwanda". Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. 18 (2).
  12. "Rwanda: Catholic bishops apologize for role in genocide". The Washington Post. 20 November 2016. Retrieved 25 November 2016.
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