Islam blooms in genocide's wake

Rwandans jump to faith they view as tolerant

By Laurie Goering

Tribune foreign correspondent

August 5, 2002

KIGALI, Rwanda -- Long before the call to prayer

begins each Friday at noon, Rwanda's Muslim faithful

jam the main mosque in Kigali's Nyamirambo

neighborhood, the overflow crowd spreading prayer rugs

on the mosque steps, over the red earth parking lot

and out the front gate.

Almost a decade after a horrific genocide left 800,000

Rwandans dead and shook the faith of this

predominantly Christian nation, Islam, once seen as a

fringe religion, has surged in popularity.

Women in bright tangerine, scarlet and blue

headscarves stroll the bustling streets of the capital

beside men in long white tunics and embroidered caps.

Mosques and Islamic schools are overflowing with

students. Today about 14 percent of Rwandans consider

themselves Muslim, up from about 7 percent before the


"We're everywhere," says Sheik Saleh Habimana, the

leader of Rwanda's burgeoning Muslim community, which

has mosques in nearly all of the country's cities and


Countries around Rwanda--Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda--have

large Muslim communities. But the religion never was

particularly popular in Rwanda until the 1994

genocide, which spurred a rush of conversions.

From April to June 1994, militias and mobs from the

country's ethnic Hutu majority hunted and murdered

hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis at the

government's urging. Within a few months, three of

four Tutsis in the country had been hacked to death,

often with machetes or hoes. More than 100,000

suspected killers eventually were jailed.

The genocide stunned Rwanda's Christian community.

While clergy in many communities struggled to protect

their congregations and died with them, some prominent

Catholic and Protestant leaders joined in the killing

spree and are facing prosecution.

Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, the head of Rwanda's

Seventh-day Adventist Church, is on trial, charged

with luring Tutsi parishioners to his church in

western Kibuye province, then turning them over to

Hutu militias that slaughtered 2,000 to 6,000 in a

single day.

The day before the massacre, Tutsi Adventist clergy

inside the church sent Ntakirutimana a now-famous

letter, informing him that "tomorrow we will be killed

with our families" and seeking his help. Survivors

report that he replied: "You must be eliminated. God

doesn't want you anymore."

Muslims offered haven

At the same time, Rwanda's Muslims--many of them

intermarried Tutsi-Hutu couples--were opening their

homes to thousands of desperate Tutsis. Muslim

families for the most part succeeded in hiding Tutsis

from the Hutu mobs, who feared entering the country's

insular Muslim communities.

Yahya Kayiranga, a young Tutsi who fled Kigali with

his mother at the start of the genocide, was taken

into the home of a Muslim family in the central city

of Gitarama, where he hid until the killing was over.

His father and uncle who stayed behind in Kigali were


"We were helped by people we didn't even know," the

27-year-old remembers, still impressed.

Unable to return to what he considered a sullied Roman

Catholic Church, he converted to Islam in 1996. Today

he is studying Arabic and the Koran at a local

madrassa and most mornings awakens for the dawn

prayer, the first of five each day.

His job as a money changer in downtown Kigali

conflicts with Islam's prohibitions on profiting from

financial transactions, but he thinks he has mostly

adapted well to his new faith.

"I thought at first Islam would be hard, but that fear

went away," he said. "It's not easy at the beginning,

but as you practice it becomes better, normal."

Rwanda's Muslim leaders have struggled to impart the

importance of unity and tolerance to their converts,

who number as many Hutus as Tutsis.

Reconciliation at mosques

Habimana is one of the leaders of the country's new

interfaith commission, created to promote acceptance,

and in a country still seething with barely masked

anger and fear after the mass killings, Rwanda's

mosques are one of the few places where reconciliation

appears to have genuinely taken hold.

"In the Islamic faith, Hutu and Tutsi are the same,"

Kayiranga said. "Islam teaches us about brotherhood."

While Rwanda's ethnic Tutsis mostly have come to Islam

seeking protection from purges and to honor and

emulate the people who saved them, Hutus also have

come, seeking to leave behind their violent past.

"They all felt the blood on their hands and they

embraced Islam to purify themselves," Habimana said.

Becoming Muslim has not been an easy process for many

Rwandans, who chafe at the religion's dress and

lifestyle restrictions. Despite Islam's new status,

Rwandan Muslims traditionally have been second-class

citizens, working as taxi drivers and traders in a

society that reveres farmers.

"Because we were Muslim we weren't considered

Rwandanese," Habimana said. Now, as the religion's

popularity grows, that is changing.

Today "we see Muslims as very kind people," said

Salamah Ingabire, 20, who converted to Islam in 1995

after losing two brothers in the killing spree. "What

we saw in the genocide changed our minds."

Copyright  2002, Chicago Tribune


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