Pentecostal Renewal Transforms Rwanda after Genocide

01/03/2012 20:09

ChristianityToday:  astor Dan Muhire can't forget how his Aunt Anizia withered away long before she died at age 50. She survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but her husband and five sons were murdered. Anizia recovered physically after the government replaced the house she had lost. But inside, she still suffered.

"Someone would come to greet her and she would say, 'Why are you greeting me? They have killed my children. Is there hope for me?'" Muhire recalled.

"She would walk aimlessly without knowing where she was going, and then come back in the night." As Muhire spoke at the Worship Center Church in Kigali, voices in the next room cried out to God in the native language of Kinyarwanda. Their singing, clapping, and drumming seemed to strengthen Muhire's resolve.

"We need to give people [hope] to live today by showing them there is life tomorrow. My auntie died because there was no sense of living again."

The Worship Center Church is one of a multitude of new, independent Pentecostal and charismatic churches throughout Rwanda. Most of them have sprung up since 1994. Recovery from trauma is a central feature of these new fellowships.

Pastor Muhire told Christianity Today about a key distinctive of his church: It is committed to addressing trauma holistically for individuals and their extended family. He learned the hard way about the need for a different approach. After his aunt died in 2003, her 33-year-old daughter mysteriously died in her sleep less than 12 months later.

"If there was a church, or counseling, if my aunt was somehow shown the meaning of living again, of why she survived, I believe she would have stayed [alive] longer," Muhire said.
The Big Shift

Before the genocide, Rwanda was considered the most Roman Catholic country in Africa. It was 63 percent Catholic with a population of 8 million in the mid-1990s, according to Anne Kubai, former head of religious studies at the Kigali Institute of Education.

In the 18 years since the genocide, the overwhelmingly Catholic demographic shifted quickly and enormously toward Protestant and independent churches. Dramatic population growth has fueled the shift. Rwanda's post-genocide population dipped to 5.4 million; now experts project that it will exceed 11.5 million by the end of 2012. Of 19 sub-Saharan countries surveyed, Rwanda has seen the most significant rise in Protestant faith, according to a new Pew Foundation report. The country is now 38 percent Protestant, and of those Protestants, Pentecostals are the most sizable group.

The genocide changed everything. In 1994, neighbor turned against neighbor as extremist Hutus killed about 1 million minority Tutsis and Hutu moderates who supported them. The church hierarchy, both Catholic and mainline Protestant, emerged with blood on its hands. Catholic priests were among the guilty. Some lured their parishioners into churches, only to let murderers in next. Other priests failed to speak out against ethnic violence in time to prevent the worst of it.

Andrew Rusatsi, a seminary professor in Nyakibanda, Rwanda, said many Rwandans felt betrayed by the Catholic Church's involvement. "They embraced other churches—Protestant, Pentecostal, and Restoration churches, which have been proliferating like mushrooms," Rusatsi said. Protestant church leaders were also implicated in the genocide, but to a lesser extent.

After the genocide, a new brand of churches emerged: Pentecostal congregations started by Tutsi refugees returning to their homeland after decades of living in neighboring countries to escape persecution. In Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, and Kenya, Rwandan refugees had encountered the emotionally expressive Pentecostal faith.

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