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


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


"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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