800,000 people died in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This is the account of the part played by one institution with more responsibility than most. The church.

Chaplains of the Militia

Chaplains of the Militia: The tangled story of the Catholic church during Rwanda’s genocide
Chris McGreal


The 1994 Rwandan genocide was the last great bloodletting of the century that came to define organised mass killing. 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by their Hutu countrymen, ordinary citizens joining in the killing alongside militia and army. The violence was driven by incendiary politicians and generals. But one global institution stands accused of complicity in the mass killings and protecting some of the murderers to this day.

The Catholic church should have been at the forefront of moral opposition to the massacres. Instead it was virtually silent as churches across Rwanda were turned into human slaughterhouses, compromised by an archbishop closely allied with the politicians behind the genocide. Some clergy courageously resisted the killers but their bishops were not there to back them. Other priests and nuns joined the murderers, overseeing the torture and slaughter of citizens who had turned to the church for refuge. After the violence ended, the Vatican spirited guilty members of the clergy out of the country, and over time, quietly worked them into parishes across Europe.

Chaplains of the Militia is the extraordinary story of those priests accused of complicity in genocide. Chris McGreal takes us from Rwanda in 1994, where he stood among the bodies at one of the many massacres in churches, to modern day France in pursuit of a priest notorious during the genocide for wearing a gun and selecting victims for the machete-waving militia. He investigates the roots of the Catholic church’s complicity in the ideology that underpinned the mass killings, confronting bishops and priests with a past some would rather forget. And, in an echo of the scandal over paedophile priests, he exposes the Vatican’s continued protection of clergy with blood on their hands.


“An essential and damning work. McGreal’s investigation of the priests who took part in the genocide in Rwanda, and of the criminal complicity of the Vatican and other churches that continue to shelter their blood-stained clergy from the law, is a sober and sobering indictment of the betrayal of humanity in the name of God. The story it tells should be read widely.” - Philip Gourevitch, author of ‘We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories From Rwanda’

“The sheer evil of the Rwandan genocide and the hypocrisy, deceit and moral cowardice that defined the world’s responses to it are distilled in the story of the extraordinarily sinister Catholic priest around whom this gripping book is built. Chris McGreal, one of the great contemporary reporters on Africa, tracks the priest down and finds that, two decades after a horror in which he bloodily took part, he remains at large in France, still exercising his holy duties with the protection and blessing of his congregation, the Vatican and the French state.” - John Carlin, author of Playing the Enemy, basis for the film Invictus


About the Authors

Chris McGreal

Chris McGreal was the Guardian’s Africa correspondent for 13 years. He has also been based in Jerusalem and Washington DC for the Guardian. Chaplains of the Militia explores the genocide which McGreal first reported on 20 years ago, and why the story is far from over.


This extract is taken from Chapter One of Chaplains of the Militia

It’s hard to find anyone in Gisors with a bad word to say about Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka.

Other priests at the small French town’s imposing medieval church, an hour’s drive north-west of Paris into the rich Normandy countryside, speak with admiration of his popularity with congregants. It’s his ability to engage with people, they say. Worshippers love his sermons, feel his sincerity. He brings something from Africa.

Even those rarely found in the church know of Father Wenceslas and insist he is a good man. A bartender at a café next to the church says he’s seen the priest about and that he is well respected. No one believes what’s said, he adds. It’s just too unbelievable that a priest would do such a thing.

Nearly half the voters in Gisors backed the far right, anti-immigrant National Front in France’s last parliamentary election. Many of those same people have embraced Father Wenceslas, one of the few foreign black residents of the town, as one of their own. He is so well known that a local photo studio sells a postcard of the Rwandan priest in a white cassock with the church as backdrop.

The rare public voice of doubt in the town is Gisors’ long serving mayor, Marcel Larmanou, an elderly communist who said the church is unhappy because he has not made his mind up about Father Wenceslas.

‘Frankly, no one wants to believe what they say about the priest because he is extremely valued here. Whether people have all the information or not, they seem to have made up their minds in his favour. He is a clever, generous man. But I don’t know if he’s a victim or a perpetrator,’ said the mayor.

‘He’s very bitter that I haven’t taken a position in this affair. He thinks I should support him like everyone else does. The church came to me and said I need to take a position.’

Larmanou said his problem is that it is hard to know what happened so far away, two decades ago. People in Gisors heard about Rwanda back in 1994, of course, as the carnage made the news even if the pictures of Tutsis being hacked to death on the streets were too gruesome to show on television.

But much of the outside world struggled to grasp the enormity of the crime in part because it was easier to fall back on clichés about tribalism and ancient ethnic hatreds than to grapple with a more complicated reality rooted in a struggle for political power. At the height of the killing, France’s president, François Mitterrand, brushed aside the tragedy with the cynical observation: ‘In such countries, genocide is not too important’.

Then one day in 2001, Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka arrived at Gisors’ magnificent, cavernous twelfth-century church with its aspirations to be a cathedral written over its Gothic towers and Renaissance facade. It was a far cry from the priest’s dreary colonial-era church, built for function, back in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. The same church where he wore a gun on his hip.

Father Wenceslas was embraced in Gisors by people moved by his story. He was a refugee, he said, from the genocide in Rwanda. He was lucky to have survived the killings. His parents died. He almost lost his own life for helping people to escape the death squads. Things are still not good, he lamented. It’s not safe for him to go back.

There was another story that spread through Gisors too. Father Wenceslas had been arrested in France a few years earlier over allegations of blood on his hands in the genocide. The courts let him go.

That piece of information didn’t appear to make much of a dent on his standing. Father Wenceslas was appointed chaplain of the Scouts in the diocese. But the past was not so easy to ignore once demonstrators from out of town turned up at the church during mass chanting slogans accusing Father Wenceslas of murder and waving an indictment from an international court charging the priest with genocide, extermination and rape.

In 2005, the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), then in the process of convicting many of the political and military leaders who oversaw the genocide, issued charges against Father Wenceslas. The indictment was a catalogue of horror. The priest, it said, conspired with leaders of the extremist Hutu militia spearheading the killing of Tutsis. It alleges that he helped draw up lists of men to die, stood by as Tutsis were taken away and killed, allowed the militia to roam his church hunting for victims, and that he raped young women.

The same year as the ICTR indictment, a military court in Rwanda convicted the priest in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison for genocide.

The protestors – some of them genocide survivors, others French people married to Rwandans – called on the Roman Catholic church to distance itself from Father Wenceslas by stripping him of his position.

The curate in Gisors, Father Michel Moran, would not have any of it. He organised a vigorous defence of the priest including a de facto trial by parishioners who listened to carefully selected witnesses and then declared Father Wenceslas to be innocent.

The drive to bring Father Wenceslas to trial for his alleged crimes has dragged from Rwanda to French judges to the international tribunal and back to the Paris courts. The priest has been arrested and released several times. The survivors are despairing of ever seeing justice for what they endured two decades ago.

But for the Roman Catholic church there is more at stake than the future of a single cleric. Father Wenceslas is just one member of the clergy at the heart of a struggle over where to pin moral responsibility for the genocide.

The Vatican paints the church as a victim not only of the mass killings – because priests and nuns were among the those slaughtered – but of persecution by Rwanda’s present government which has jailed members of the clergy and accused the church leadership of having blood on its hands.

Two hundred or more priests and nuns, Tutsi and Hutu, were murdered during the genocide. Some died courageously attempting to save lives or refusing to abandon their parishioners. But there were other priests who murdered.

Some collaborated with the militias to massacre their own congregations, others pulled the trigger themselves. Priests ordered the bulldozers in to crush a church full of people to death and organised the slaughter of disabled Tutsi children.

The Vatican has sought to identify the church with the heroic priests. But ask Rwandans today which side the Catholic church as an institution was on during the genocide and many say it was allied with the killers.

For years, Rwanda’s archbishop served the government as a member of the president’s cabinet and a vocal supporter of the ruling party. His bishops mostly stayed silent during the genocide or sided with the regime organising the massacres.

When religious leaders did speak, their statements were so equivocal or misleading as to be seen by many Rwandans as indifferent to the slaughter.

Accusations that the Catholic leadership acted as apologists for the génocidaire have been buttressed by the involvement of a network of church organisations, from monasteries to missionaries, in helping priests accused of murder in Rwanda to evade justice. Some were hidden away in Europe, taken on under false names as parish priests. Others are in plain sight, including Father Wenceslas.

Across Rwanda today, church names are often recalled not as places of worship but as extermination centres. In many towns, more Tutsis were killed among the pews and altars than in any other place. Survivors say it is not a coincidence.

But what frustrates them most is the continued culture of denial in the Catholic church (which claims three out of five Rwandans as followers), that echoes the Vatican’s failure for many years to face up to the scandal of paedophile priests and the complicity of some in the church in protecting Nazi war criminals.

I arrived in Gisors one Thursday afternoon and spotted Father Wenceslas holding a service for a few elderly congregants scattered among rows of empty wooden chairs.

The charm others spoke of shone through. He was polite, engaging and even witty as he painted a picture of himself as a persecuted priest in a persecuted church. At times he guffawed at what he said were the preposterous accusations against him. He appealed to be understood as an innocent man, wrongfully accused.

‘Can you imagine what it means to be accused as a priest? To be accused of genocide being a priest? That you’ve raped women when it’s clearly false. Can you imagine?’

He rarely raised his voice as we spoke about why it is that so many survivors of the genocide accuse him of siding with the murderers. Or why an international court chose to indict him when there was no shortage of other targets for trial. But Father Wenceslas grew more forceful when I asked about the gun.

There is, I said, a photograph of him with a cross around his neck and a gun on his hip outside his church, the St Famille in Kigali. It is one of the things the survivors all talk about.

It was a lie, he said, clearly agitated.

‘There was no cross. It was just the gun.’

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