Augustin Misago, the first Catholic bishop ever to go on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, is in a fight, not to prove his innocence, he says, but to exonerate his church of complicity in the 1994 mass murder of Rwanda's Tutsis.
    He sits slumped on a four-legged wooden stool in his jail cell, looking less like a bishop than like a boxer catching his breath between rounds of a title bout.
    With a laugh, the stocky 56-year-old prelate dismisses allegations against him that include sending 82 schoolchildren to their deaths at the hands of machete-wielding militia. Instead, he says, he is a scapegoat for a regime bent on revenge for the church's alleged silence during the slaughter of more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
    ``I'm innocent,'' Misago said during a recent interview in his cell in Kigali's Central Prison, his voice sometimes barely audible above the din of thousands of lesser-known genocide suspects milling in the squalid jailyard nearby. ``But through me, the Rwandan government is targeting the Catholic church.''
    Misago is by far the most prominent of the more than 20 priests and nuns accused of participating in the Rwandan genocide. His trial, which begins in earnest next week after a round of preliminary defense motions, culminates years of government frustration.
    In the five years since Hutu extremists attempted to exterminate the country's minority Tutsis, stopped only by a Tutsi rebel force that seized power, the government has waited in vain for an expression of contrition it believes is due from the church for its failure to stem the 100-day killing spree. None has come.
    Official resentment deepened last year, when Pope John II unsuccessfully urged President Pasteur Bizimungu to halt the executions of 33 people convicted of genocide. Many Rwandans, noting the Vatican's less than zealous efforts to investigate the church's role in the genocide, were furious at what they viewed as the pope's selective indignation.
    At ceremonies in April marking the fifth anniversary of the start of the genocide, the frustration finally spilled over.
    In front of a church parish in Misago's diocese where 20,000 Tutsis were massacred -- and with the bishop and the Vatican's new representative in Kigali sitting a few feet away -- Bizimungu stepped to the microphone and lashed out: ``The Rwandan state did not place Bishop Misago above the law and is not afraid of him. We had wanted to give him and the Catholic church time to accept responsibility for the issue. We shall only intervene if the church continues to do nothing.'' A week later, Misago was arrested.
    The Vatican sprung to Misago's defense, calling his arrest a ``wound'' against the whole church and saying it hoped the bishop's innocence would ``rapidly be proved.''
    Since then, the Vatican's newspaper has described Misago's case as part of a Rwandan government campaign to hold the Catholic church solely responsible for the genocide, a suggestion reinforced by hit song here that blames the church for all past and present evil in the country.
    ``What does this have to do with me?'' Misago exclaims, bounding across his 40-by-30 foot cell and pointing to his court dossier containing handwritten testimonies against him. ``They're all fake.''
    Clad in black jeans, a short-sleeved pink prison-issue shirt and a six-inch silver crucifix dangling on a chain, the bishop depicts himself as another of the genocide's victims, powerless to stem the carnage as bodies piled up in churchyards across his Gigonkoro diocese in southwestern Rwanda.
    He was in the capital, on his way to Rome for a conference of African bishops, when the plane carrying the country's Hutu president was shot from the sky on April 6, 1994, triggering the bloodbath. Not until he returned home a week later did he realize government soldiers were leading the killing. By then, he says, it was too late.
    ``I had no army and commanded no police,'' he says. ``I couldn't extend my hands and like Moses, part the sea and say 'Stop!'''
    Misago's self-portrait differs sharply with the image painted by the London-based human rights group African Rights.
    It accuses the bishop of surrendering three Tutsi priests to their deaths, protecting two Hutu priests implicated in the bloodshed and failing to defend thousands of Tutsis who sought refuge in his parish and were later killed because, as Misago later told an interviewer, he had ``no room.'' Similar allegations are expected to be leveled by Rwandan prosecutors.
    The bishop's professed powerlessness also is at odds with the influence wielded by the church before the genocide, when Misago and the country's eight other bishops enjoyed a cosy relationship with the country's ruling Hutu elite. The hierarchy's constituency was massive -- roughly 4.8 million, or 62 percent, of the country's pre-genocide population of 7.8 million identified with the faith, making Rwanda the most Catholic country in Africa.
    While some priests lost their lives to save Tutsis when the bloodbath erupted, church leaders faltered, with Rwanda's archbishop initially blaming Tutsi rebels for provoking the bloodshed. Later, the bishops urged a stop to the killing but blamed it on both Hutu extremists and Tutsi rebels -- in effect, justifying genocide in the name of self-defense.
    ``It's quite possible there were mistakes of judgement -- the church is made of men not angels,'' Misago says. ``Still, the Rwandan church, as a church, is not guilty.''
    If convicted in a trial where priests and nuns are expected to testify against him, Misago faces the death penalty -- a prospect he says arouses no apprehension. ``I'm not afraid. Jesus himself was the first to be unjustly condemned.''
    AP 12:43pm 13/9/99

Catholic Telecommunications Home Page A meditation on Today's Scripture The people of Catholic Telecommunications Online Catholic News continuously updated Discounted Internet and Telephony products available to our clients How to contact us