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'Chaplains' paints nasty picture of church in Rwandan killings

Guardian reporter from Portland puts African atrocities in a new light


This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide during which about 800,000 Tutsis were murdered in just 100 days.

Portland author Chris McGreal was in Rwanda covering the genocide for The Guardian newspaper of Great Britain, for which he has worked also in South Africa (covering Nelson Mandela), Middle East and South America. In his eBook, “Chaplains of the Militia: The tangled story of the Catholic church during Rwanda’s genocide” ($2.99, Guardian Shorts), McGreal revisits Rwanda and tells a beyond horrible story in a gripping book.

The thesis of “Chaplains” comes in the prologue, where McGreal writes, “This is the account of the part played by one institution with more responsibility than most. The church.”

As someone who did not come to the book with much knowledge of the Rwanda genocide, it was at first difficult to grasp the conflict between the Tutsi and the Hutu. But hatred can be a complex and ugly thing.

The biggest villain of the book is Father Wenceslas, a priest who “Chaplains” describes as committing numerous atrocities. To his great credit, McGreal actually interviewed the priest in Gisors, France, years after the Rwanda genocide. Wenceslas describes himself as a wrongfully accused man. But, the book tells a very different story.

Numerous times I had to read passages several times, not because the writing was unclear but because it was impossible for me to believe what I was reading. For instance, McGreal writes that Father Wenceslas is alleged to have raped young women, drawn up lists of men to die, stood by as Tutsis were taken away and killed and allowed the militia to roam his church hunting for victims.

Or this chilling quote early in the book: “Priests ordered the bulldozers in to crush a church full of people to death and organized the slaughter of disabled Tutsi children.”

And there were even worse, more sickening accounts that I do not feel comfortable putting in print. One of McGreal’s true talents is that he is able to tell the story fairly. He lays out facts that make a reader shake with rage, but he shows both sides of the story. Had the book talked only about the atrocities perpetuated by the church during the Rwanda genocide, it would have wound up far less powerful than showing that there were also good priests and nuns.

McGreal writes that 200 or more priests and nuns were murdered during the genocide. “Some died courageously attempting to save lives or refusing to abandon their parishioners,” he writes, later adding, “The courageous followed their God and sometimes died doing so.”

Perhaps the most disheartening thing about the book is that, from McGreal’s perspective, the Catholic church still has not owned up to the atrocities aided by the clergy in Rwanda.

McGreal writes: “The Vatican paints the church as a victim not only of the mass killings — because priests and nuns were among those slaughtered — but of persecution by Rwanda’s present government.”

The book has a very detailed section at the end that describes its sources for each chapter. This is nice to see not because I doubted McGreal’s journalistic integrity, but because so much of what he writes is so hard to stomach that an extra layer of proof hammers home that what the book described is REAL.

That winds up being the most important thing to take away from “Chaplains.” The story is real. And knowing that the story is real is one small step toward avoiding repetition of this awful history.