By David Himbara
These are Paul Kagame’s words regarding churches in his closing remarks at the National Leadership Retreat on March 1, 2018:
”Seven hundred churches in Kigali? Are these boreholes that give people water? I don’t think we have as many boreholes. Do we even have as many factories? But 700 churches, which you even had to close? This has been a mess!”
The madness of shutting down over 700 churches has astonished me — which is an astonishment in itself. Normally, even the most outrageous actions by Kagame do not surprise me these days. Shutting down churches caught me by surprise. This shutdown immediately followed the murder of an unknown number of unarmed refugees protesting against hunger on Rwandan soil.
My question is — before he shut down more than 700 churches, did Kagame think of why they were established in the first place?
Let me first make it clear that I am not a member of any particular organized church. Nonetheless, I am humbled and greatly respect and enormously admire the purposes of churches which I understand to include: 1) praying to God; 2) teaching biblical doctrine; 3) providing a place of fellowship for believers, and 4) nurturing community counseling and support. To call churches ”a mess” is extraordinarily insane.
In Rwanda’s context, churches meet their members’ spiritual, emotional and physical needs in these troubling times under Kagame’s dictatorial and traumatizing regime. Under the Kagame regime, many Rwandan churchgoers are struggling to make ends meet in their everyday lives. They are poor, unemployed or earn exceedingly low wages. Irrespective of church size, each Rwandan church provides some meaning, counselling, and outreach services to its members.
Understandably, Rwandan churches are rooted in their own communities and neighborhoods. Their members are operating as self-help public servants that positively impact the lives of Rwandan neighborhoods.
Which leads to an important question — what is the real reason for Kagame’s shutdown of Rwandan churches? Is it true that the reason Kagame shut down the churches was hygiene — that these churches operate in substandard premises?
The hygiene justification for closing churches is bogus. The entire Kigali City is unhygienic — with open sewers running through homes and neighborhoods. A city of over one million, Kigali does not have a sewage system. There is no treatment plant — raw sewage is dumped into the national and regional water systems.
The real reason Kagame shut down Rwandan churches is fear and paranoia.
Kagame tightly controls the media, political parties, and civil society at large. The churches constituted the last open space. Kagame knows this. The localized community of churches offered a slight space for daring to imagine and talk about change. What mattered most was that these churches were willing to open their doors to the hurting and to the broken within their communities. The churchgoers sang and praised God who they believe will set things rights. In Kagame’s Rwanda that is full of poverty, division, and oppression, it makes perfect sense that indeed thousands of people flock to churches without hesitation. The Rwandan churches are not unique in this sense — as elsewhere, churches actively and creatively respond to the new reality of a broken world. Churches offer hope and a better future. But to dictators like Kagame, space for independent thoughts and an alternative future is dangerous. Churchill’s quote best explains the dictators’ cowardice:
”You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police … yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home — all the more powerful because forbidden — terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”
Kagame, churches in Rwanda are not a mess. Far from it. They represent hope. I put it to you that the reason you closed Rwandan churches is not hygiene but fear of words and thoughts. To paraphrase Churchill, a little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even with your mightiest military, you are thrown into panic. Your paranoia is the real reason for your cowardly closure of Rwandan churches.