Arusha, 14 March 2008 (FH) - The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) convicted Wednesday to life in prison a catholic priest, Athanase Seromba, for his involvement in the 1994 genocide.

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Two other catholic priests, Hormisdas Nsengimana and Emmanuel Rukundo, are on trial for this last genocide of the 20th century which resulted in 800 000 victims according to the UN. After the genocide, people had condemned, including within the Catholic Church outside Rwanda, the proximity of the priests to the government and the authors of the genocide.

Indeed, many churches, where at the time of preceding massacres in 1959 and 1973 people had taken refuge, had become traps where the victims vainly sought assistance and protection.

Sent by the pope in June 1994 to investigate the involvement of the church in the genocide, French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray said to have lived "a long way of the cross", but Rome has always stated that they were individual behaviours, refusing any institutional responsibility.

The Rwandan Catholic Church was regarded as one of the better ones in Africa for the number of faithful and its enthusiasm. It had welcomed in 1990 Pope Jean Paul II and the records of attendance to the masses had been beaten. But it had also been compromised, in particular, by the privileged relations of some of its officials with the regime of President Juvenal Habyarimana.

Thus, the archbishop of Kigali, Msgr. Vincent Nsengiyumva, was a member of the central committee of the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND), the sole party before the introduction of the multi-party system.

After the genocide people spoke out, certain priests accusing their colleagues of being implicated in the massacres. For as much, anxious to preserve its image, the supreme hierarchy in Rome protected the increasingly pressured clergymen.

Thus, Seromba was found in a parish in Florence, in northern Italy, where he officiated under a false name before being uncovered by an association of survivors and being tracked by the press. Facing an ever greater scandal, Rome suggested to the priest to surrender himself. Imprisoned in Arusha on 6 February 2002, he received little before his appearance the visit of the apostolic nuncio in Tanzania. During his trial, the Catholic Church no longer appeared even if the catholic chaplain of the ICTR prison attended most of the proceedings.

Interviewed Thursday by the Hirondelle Agency, Mr. Methodius Kilaini, a collaborator of the archbishop of Dar es Salaam, explained that once this judgment became final, the priest could be suspended by his diocese then possibly excommunicated by the Vatican.

Alone, thus, Seromba, assisted by his lawyer, Patrice Monthe, tried to clear himself by awkwardly pleading his weak authority, which the first instance chamber had seemed to recognize before the appeal judges decided differently Wednesday and gave him a sentence of life in prison.

As the first instance judges had limited the responsibility of the clergyman to "assistance and encouragement" of the crimes of genocide and extermination, the appeal chamber concluded that Seromba played a central part in the death of Tutsis who had taken refuge in his church in Nyange. He knew very well, according to the ruling, that approximately 1 500 people were in the church but he approved the decision of the local administrative authorities to destroy it. The chamber also mentioned his refusal to celebrate mass for Tutsi refugees who had asked it of him.

Fourteen years after the events, near the ruins of the church of Nyange, in central Rwanda, there where Father Seromba showed the driver of the bulldozer which side to begin the destruction of the building so that it would be easier, a vast hangar was built where are held the dominical services. Interviewed there at the opening of the trial, in 2004, a deacon explained that attendance was even greater than before.

© Hirondelle News Agency