Rev Emmanuel Murangira, currently the country director for Tearfund in Rwanda, was Thursday evening’s keynote speaker at the Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP) ‘Faithful Peacebuilding’ conference at the Hilton in Templepatrick.
Murangira shared his experiences of the Rwandan genocide and reflected on the human capacity to forgive. (Murangira also told his story at the 2014 New Horizon conference, which can be read here.)*
He will speak again on Sunday 29 March at 7 pm at Whitehouse Presbyterian in Belfast, along with Marina Moorhead, one of the writers of the film, A Step Too Far?: A Contemplation on Forgiveness.
The ICPP is winding down after a roughly 2.5 year, £1.3 million programme funded by the EU’s PEACE III Programme (Special EU Programmes Body). Additional funding was provided by the Northern Ireland Executive through the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG) of the Irish Government.
ICPP’s work will conclude in June, but it is hoped that the programmes and resources they promoted will be sustainable in some form at the grassroots level.
Murangira’s parents were both born in Rwanda, but they had been forced to flee the country due to violence against Tutsis in the 1960s. Marangira was born in a refugee camp in Burundi and grew up in Tanzania and Kenya, where he said he grew to hate the Hutus – ‘Because of the way I grew up I came to hate anyone called a Hutu because I thought they were responsible for everything had had gone wrong in my life. I felt angry and bitter.’
Murangira travelled to Rwanda within days of the genocide in 1994, to search for any of his 102 known relatives. Fewer than 10 had survived, including a three-year-old cousin, Rachel, who had witnessed her parents and nine siblings murdered.
Rachel had stopped speaking and when Murangira took her into his home, she did not speak again for three years. She remained tormented by night terrors and memories of what had happened.
But at the age of 12, Rachel attended a community court for perpetrators in the genocide:
‘The man who was giving evidence was the man who had rescued her. But she also recognised him as one of those who had participated in killing her parents. He had picked her out of the bodies and taken her to an orphanage.
When Rachel came back from the trial, she was totally shaken. She went to church on the Sunday and when she came back she said to me, “I think I need to forgive that man who killed my mother because if I don’t forgive him I will think about him forever and I don’t want to do that. I need to forgive him.”’
Murangira said that he was angry that Rachel wanted to forgive. He acknowledged that many in the audience might be wondering if he was a Christian at that time. He said he was, even a minister of the gospel, but that he still did not want to forgive.
The next morning Murangira picked up his bible to read his devotions. The text was Matthew 6: 14 – 15, which includes the words: “Forgive one another because if you don’t forgive one another your Father in heaven won’t forgive you.”
Murangira wrestled with himself as he tried to decide what to do:
‘Until that point, I had started to think about revenge. I would be lying if I told you that killing did not cross my mind. The encounter I had with Christ as I read those verses in Matthew 6 was the defining moment in my life. That drove me to start thinking about forgiveness.’
Murangira spoke about finally deciding to forgive, acknowledging that it was not an easy process or decision. Shortly thereafter, a Hutu man [who had been accused of crimes] came to his house seeking help. Murangira saw this as a test from God, trying his sincerity. While he would not have done so in the past, he helped the man.
For Murangira, forgiveness is not necessarily a one-off event, but one that is worked out through continued action. He was soon motivated to begin Christian-based work for reconciliation in his country.
Murangira admitted that the churches emerged with ‘no credibility’ after the genocide, either because they had stood by or encouraged participation in the killing. Some church leaders even took part in the killing. But he said that should not stop the churches from the painstaking work of rebuilding their own witness, pointing themselves and the wider society toward reconciliation.
Murangira’s is a story that can inspire Christians in Northern Ireland to continue or take up the work of reconciliation. But it is also a story that reminds them that before beginning such work, it is wise to count the cost. Reconciliation is difficult, unpopular among many, and the churches risk become compromised by the political process if they are not careful.
* Some quotes are taken from the New Horizon transcript.
Photo by Brian O’Neill