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A priest from Rwanda alleged to have participated in the country’s 1994 genocide has been laicized, but not as a result of those accusations but rather for having a son out of wedlock.
In a document dated May 2, the Bishop of the French Diocese of Evreux, where Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka has worked since 1994, notified him of Pope Francis’ decision to relieve him of his priestly responsibilities.
“By Decree dated March 23, 2023, received last week, the Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Francis, by his supreme and final decision which is not subject to any appeal, has dismissed in pœnam from the clerical state Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, incardinated in the Archdiocese of Kigali (Rwanda) and currently residing in the Diocese of Evreux,” read the document signed by Bishop Christian Philippe Pierre Robert Nourrichard.
“Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka is exempt from all obligations arising from sacred ordination, automatically loses all the rights specific to the clerical state, is excluded from the exercise of the sacred ministry and cannot function as lector or acolyte,” the note adds.
The French church has said that being defrocked is punishment for the priest’s revelation that he has fathered a son, even though the statement makes no mention of the motive for the decision.
On December 3, 2021, Nourrichard removed Munyeshyaka from his position in the parish of Saint-Martin de la Risle in Brionne, after the Rwandan confessed to having fathered a son as a result of a love affair he had in Gisors.
On May 3, the diocese declared that the Pope’s decision “is not related to the past of this [cleric], in this case in Rwanda.” Instead, it is “the conclusion of an ongoing file” launched in December 2021.
Most observers believe the statement was issued in response to assumptions that Munyeshyaka’s dismissal from the priesthood may have been due to his participation in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which resulted in the deaths of over 800,000 people.
Munyeshyaka was the first Rwandan in France to be sued for his alleged involvement in the mass killings.
A group called the “Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda” and other organizations defending genocide victims accused the priest of raping refugees, turning over Tutsis to the assassins, and taking part in executions in the spring of 1994.
The 20-year-long trial was thrown out in 2015 by the judges of the High Court of Paris’ genocide unit for a lack of evidence. The ruling was upheld in 2019 by France’s highest court of criminal and civil appeal.
However, Munyeshyaka’s accusers continue to insist on his guilt.
“He celebrated Mass with his pistol on his belt, he used a very unpleasant vocabulary against the Tutsis and with the Interahamwe (genocidal militia), he appeared too complacent,” Gilles Paruelle, the lawyer for the complainants told French Catholic news site, La Croix.
Munyeshyaka’s lawyers, however, insist that he took some steps “to protect Tutsi refugees and to help them escape the fate reserved for them by the militia.”
When he sought refuge in Goma to the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the summer of 1994, Munyeshyaka was among a group of priests who wrote Pope John Paul II to deny there had been a genocide against the Tutsis, instead presenting the Hutus as the victims.
Munyeshyaka claimed his legal woes were “because I could not accept the demonization of the Hutus,” he told La Croix back in 1995. In 2006, he was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for the crime of genocide by the Rwandan justice system.
Naftal Ahishakiye, executive secretary of a genocide survivors’ association, told the media that [his dismissal from the priesthood] was long overdue.
“When he was the priest of the St. Famille Parish, he played a central role in bringing Interahamwe to kill the Tutsi who had fled at the parish,” he said.
Munyeshyaka himself is of mixed ancestry, half Tutsi and half Hutu. His mother, Félicité Mukarukaka, was a Tutsi, while his father, Gabriel Ngiruwonsanga, was a Hutu. He was born on July 30, 1958, in Butare Province, Rwanda.
The 1994 carnage began when Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi and Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda, two Hutu leaders, were assassinated while flying back from peace negotiations.
After that, there was a 100-day killing rampage, with most of the victims being peaceful Hutus and Tutsis.
As a result, the nation was left in ruins, and those who survived had to deal with physical and mental agony. Along with homes and villages, families were completely destroyed. Up to 2 million people fled the country, many of whom belonged to the Hutu ethnic group. One million people were moved within the nation. 75,000 of the survivors were children who had either lost one or both of their parents.
Experts say that many of those accused of committing the acts of violence may have evaded capture.