Converts swell Muslim ranks

10/11/2003 07:52 - (SA),,2-11-1447_1442747,00.html

Kigali - Long a marginalised tiny minority, Rwanda's Muslims have grown considerably in number and stature in the 10 years since the genocide of 1994.

Like many of his compatriots, Isaac, a lanky young stonemason, converted after the bloody events of that year, when he was a soldier in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-led rebellion that is now the dominant force in government.

"I converted after my unit came into Kigali and I saw how many of my fellow Tutsis has been hidden, and therefore saved, by Muslims," he told a correspondent in the populous Nyamirambo district of the capital.

According to the current government, up to a million people were killed over 100 days in 1994 during an orchestrated campaign by the Hutu government to rid the country of its Tutsi minority.

At the time, about 1.2 percent of the population were of the Islamic faith, which was introduced to Rwanda in around 1900 by Arab traders and translators working with the German military.

One of those to swell this proportion to the current estimate of 10 percent is former Roman Catholic Jean-Pierre Sagahutu, who now works as a taxi driver.

"I was hiding in a septic tank behind the house of a Muslim called Idrissa. Only he knew where I was. If he had betrayed me I would have been killed," he said.

Many Rwandans can tell similar stories. Generally, those who sought refuge in mosques were protected from the government soldiers and militias who sought out and killed Tutsis.

The Catholic church, by contrast, has a sorrier record. There are many examples of mass killings inside consecrated churches and even of collusion between the clergy and the killers.

The UN court in Tanzania trying leading genocide planners and perpetrators has charged several Christian clergymen.

In February, the court convicted an Adventist pastor and his son of genocide and crimes against humanity.

In 2001, a court in Belgium, Rwanda's former colonial power, sentenced two nuns to 15 and 12 years in jail for their roles in the genocide.

The spokesperson for Rwanda's Muslims, Saleh Habimana, recalls a big rush to convert to Islam immediately after the 1994 genocide, sometimes for dubious reasons.

He says some Hutus thought conversion would spare them from suspicion of complicity while some Tutsis saw it as a way of protecting themselves in the event of another genocide.

Habimana believes Islam maintains its independence in Rwanda because it is largely self-financing. The tiny mosques whose green and white minarets dot the Rwandan countryside are all built and financed by local communities.

"Rwandan people, poor as we are, we are mentally free... We know that any funding which comes from abroad comes with conditions," he said, conceding that Rwandan Muslims do receive small contributions from Libya and Saudi Arabia.

Rwandan Muslims, themselves extremely tolerant of other religious beliefs, are well perceived by other religions, and, since the coming to power of President Paul Kagame, himself a Protestant, almost 10 years ago, are well-represented in the administration.


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