Church hides Rwandan priest in Tuscany
Catholic hierarchy in Italy helps war crimes suspect
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* Rory Carroll in San Mauro a Signa
* The Guardian, Monday 16 July 2001 02.19 BST
* Article history
Italy's Roman Catholic church yesterday spirited into hiding a Rwandan priest wanted by the international war crimes tribunal for allegedly murdering 2,500 parishioners during Rwanda's genocide.
Father Athanase Seromba vanished with the help of the Catholic hierarchy hours before he was due to say mass in San Mauro a Signa, a village outside Florence. Fr Seromba had promised to explain in a sermon why the UN Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) last week sought his extradition on genocide charges.
Parishioners packed the 16th-century church yesterday morning to hear his defence but learned he had gone into hiding at a secret location.
A spokesman for the diocese, Riccardo Bigi, said the hierarchy had provided a bolthole in Tuscany to help him escape media attention.
"He has not run away. We know where he is, but would rather not say where. He will spend a few days in peace to avoid curious journalists. I don't know when he will return," Mr Bigi said.
The few days could stretch into a "holiday" of indeterminate duration, he added.
According to African Rights, a London-based human rights organisation, Fr Seromba, 38, participated in the 1994 extermination of 800,000 minority Tutsis by the ruling Hutu tribe. Survivors claim the priest, a Hutu, herded up to 2,500 Tutsi parishioners into his church at Nyange, before ordering two bulldozers to crush them in one of the genocide's most notorious bloodbaths.
The church moved him to Italy soon after, ostensibly to study, and under an assumed name he served as deputy parish priest at a church in Florence before moving 18 months ago to San Mauro a Signa.
Simultaneous raids in Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands last week netted three Rwandans wanted by the tribunal, which will try them at a UN court in Tanzania, but Italy refused to hand over a fourth suspect, who legal sources identified as Fr Seromba.
The tribunal's top prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, was furious: "I am surprised and stupefied, because apparently Italy doesn't know that the obligation to execute our arrest warrant is an international obligation without need of an internal law."
Italy said it needed an ad hoc decree to cooperate, but Italian media suggested the real reason was pressure by the Vatican which has sought to play down its clergy's role in the massacres.
An article about foreign priests in yesterday's Toscana Oggi, a Catholic newspaper, made no mention of Fr Seromba, but did refer to another Hutu colleague who fled to Italy after his family was allegedly killed by Tutsis. Fr Seromba, who now calls himself Fr Anastasio Sumba Bura, has denounced the accusations against him as politically motivated lies. He was too upset to defend himself yesterday, said Mr Bigi.
The ailing parish priest he was sent to help, Fr Armido Pollai, 83, said mass in his place. From a glazed terracotta altar he related the story of the good samaritan, but made no reference to his colleague.
Parishioners praised the energy and cheerfulness of the small, plump African, who prepared their children for communion, heard confession and performed marriages. "He is a lovely man; he stops in here for milk and honey in the morning before going to church. I don't believe he could have done such terrible things," said the owner of a café.
Most of those spilling into the sunshine after mass did not want to discuss the allegations. A local policeman, Vincenzo Forte, said they were nervous.
"Everybody is worrying that if he is guilty the marriages and communions might turn out to be invalid. Where would that leave us?"http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/jul/21/catholicism.religion
Catholics and collusion in genocide
The Vatican is still thwarting trials of Rwandan clerics. It's inexcusable
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* Rupert Shortt
* The Guardian, Saturday 21 July 2001 01.08 BST
* Article history
Last month a Belgian court convicted two nuns of abetting one of the foulest atrocities of the Rwandan genocide. The prosecution claimed that Srs Gertrude Mukangango and Maria Kisito had provided the petrol used to incinerate many hundreds of Tutsis sheltering in a barn at the Sovu monastery on April 22 1994. Having encouraged Hutu militiamen to carry out the slaughter, witnesses said, Mukangango and Kisito then moved to Belgium to escape justice. At their trial, a lawyer remarked that "the monastery, which should have been a sanctuary, instead became a deadly trap".
Most coverage of the case focused on how women sworn to lives of charity could have promoted a massacre. But in the process an even deeper scandal has been overlooked, namely why the Catholic church defended the nuns for so long, and on what grounds it is still thwarting efforts to investigate other genocide suspects who served its mission. Any hopes that the church might have learnt some humility from the case were quickly dashed by a Vatican statement expressing "surprise" at the verdict, and implying that Belgium's geographical distance from Rwanda might have made a fair trial impossible.
Worse was to come, however. A few days ago three further genocide suspects - including a priest, Emmanuel Rukundo - were arrested in Belgium, Holland and Switzerland at the behest of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). But the man whom UN officials sought above all evaded their grasp, thanks in large part to pressure exerted by the Vatican on the Italian government. He is Athanase Seromba, a 38-year-old cleric who has ministered with impunity in the Florence area for seven years. Before this he was a parish priest near the Rwandan town of Nyange until a massacre took place inside his church in mid-April 1994. All the Tutsis sheltering there died, many under falling masonry when the building was bulldozed. At least 11 witnesses have given statements saying that the slaughter was orchestrated by Seromba himself.
African Rights, the London based campaign group, published a lengthy dossier on Seromba's case 18 months ago. It alleges that when the genocide started, he used his authority as a priest to disarm local Tutsis and lure them on to church premises. The document adds that on April 15 1994, "a large number of militiamen surrounded the parish and used guns, grenades and machetes to kill the refugees. Seromba gave orders to the killers and shot those who tried to escape. The killers were unable to get into the church, where some of the survivors were hiding, so on April 16, Seromba ordered the demolition of the church with the people inside." About 2,000 perished in all.
By late 1994 Seromba had fetched up in Italy with a new name, "Anastasio Sumba Bura", and a character reference from his bishop which secured him a job. Until last week he was working as a curate in San Mauro a Signa, a village outside Florence. On learning of the bid to arrest him, Seromba, who has always protested his innocence, announced that he would give an account of his actions from the pulpit last Sunday. In the event he was taken away by his superiors beforehand, and is now in hiding at a church-owned address somewhere in Tuscany.
Meanwhile the church's official stance on the issue is unravelling. While Vatican spokesmen continue to maintain that Seromba is a victim of malicious slander, the Florence diocese announced this week that it had an open mind as to his culpability. But whatever the position, campaigners say, the church is obstructing the legal process. Despite a strong plea by the Pope five years ago for all Catholics involved in the genocide to confess their crimes, no one has yet done so voluntarily. The Vatican also argued that the Rwandan government's condemnation of individual clerics is prompted by a broader anti-Catholic agenda, and cites the action against Augustin Misago - a bishop tried and acquitted of mass murder last year - as a case in point. Critics reply that the church's resistance to litigation involving clergy reflects the secretive and unaccountable form of its procedures generally, and draw a parallel with the numerous delays seen in attempts to root out paedophile priests.
Seromba himself is already on a list of genocide suspects circulated internationally by the Rwandan ministry of justice, but the political authorities in Rome would refuse to send alleged murderers back to countries which retain the death penalty. The ICTR operates from Arusha in Tanzania, however. If Seromba were tried and convicted there, the stiffest sentence he could receive would be life imprisonment.
Despite its catastrophic opposition to contraception and the role this has played in spreading Aids, the Catholic church remains a large force for good in Africa. It is one of the largest sources of development aid, and the biggest single provider of education. But the country in which its resources were concentrated as nowhere else in Africa also witnessed the slaughter of almost a million people in under a month. The case of the Sovu nuns reveals that Catholic pastors not only failed to stop the genocide, but at times colluded in it. The church's self-appointed role as a champion of human rights will appear bogus for as long as it refuses to come to terms with this collusion.
Rupert Shortt is religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement