Rwanda Turns to Islam After Genocide


Associated Press Writer

November 07. 2002 2:40PM

KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) - After the sliver of the new moon

had been sighted, Saleh Habimana joined the growing

ranks of Muslims in this central African nation and

began the daylight fasting that marks the holy month

of Ramadan.

Later, Rwanda's leading Muslim cleric joined men in

embroidered caps and boys in school uniforms to pray

at the overflowing Al-Fatah mosque - more testimony to

the swelling numbers of Muslims in this predominantly

Christian country.

Though Muslims remain a small percentage of Rwanda's 8

million people, Islam is on the rise eight years after

the 1994 genocide brought 100 days of murder, terror

and mayhem. More than 500,000 minority Tutsis and

political moderates from the Hutu majority were killed

by Hutu militiamen, soldiers and ordinary citizens in

a slaughter orchestrated by the extremist Hutu

government then in power.

"For Hutus, conversion to Islam was like purification,

a way of getting rid of a stigma," Habimana said.

"After the genocide, Hutus felt that the society

perceives them as having blood on their hands."

Arab merchants trading in ivory and slaves introduced

Islam to Rwanda in the 18th century. The faith grew

after 1908 when waves of Muslims flowed in from

Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan at the beginning of

European colonial rule.

For nearly a century, Muslims remained on the fringes

of Rwandan society. The faithful in Kigali were

restricted to Biryogo, a dusty neighborhood where the

Al-Fatah mosque now stands. They needed permits to


During the genocide, Muslims were among the few

Rwandans who protected both neighbors and strangers.

Elsewhere, many Hutus hunted down or betrayed their

Tutsi neighbors and strangers suspected of belonging

to the minority.

But the militiamen and soldiers didn't dare go after

Tutsis in Muslim neighborhoods like Biryogo, said

Yvette Sarambuye, a 29-year-old convert.

"If a Hutu Muslim tried to kill someone hidden in our

neighborhoods, he would first be asked to take the

holy Quran and tear it apart to renounce his faith,"

said Sarambuye, a Tutsi widowed mother of three who

survived the slaughter by hiding with Muslims. "No

Muslim dared to violate the holy book, and that saved

a lot of us."

For many Hutu extremists, Muslims were regarded as a

group apart, not to be targeted in the genocide.

Although the Christian clergy in many communities

struggled to protect Tutsis and often died with them,

more than 20 Roman Catholic and Protestant priests,

nuns and pastors are facing charges related to the

killings. Rwandan courts already have convicted two

Catholic priests and sentenced them to death.

As Sarambuye hid in Muslim homes during the slaughter,

she watched them pray, learned about a faith that

previously was alien to her and grew to admire it.

"For these people, Islam was not a label, it was a way

of life, and I felt an urge to join them," she said.

Tutsis also converted to Islam for practical reasons -

seeking protection from renewed killings by Hutus who

continued to attack Rwanda from refugee camps in Congo

after Tutsi-led rebels ended the genocide and

overthrew the Hutu government, Habimana said.

Conversions tapered off after 1997 when the government

was able to guarantee security, and Islam was no

longer regarded as a vital safe haven, Habimana said.

But the religion still attracts converts. There are no

official figures on how many Rwandans are Muslim;

estimates vary from 5 to 14 percent.

Most Muslims in Rwanda belong to the majority Sunni

branch of Islam, said Jean-Pierre Sagahutu, a

35-year-old Tutsi who converted to the faith.

"After the genocide, a small group of Islamic

fundamentalists, funded by Pakistanis who flew to

Rwanda frequently, took control of a mosque and

started to organize themselves," he said. "But they

were kicked out by the official Muslim organization

concerned about the spread of radical Islam."

As Rwandan Christian Tutsis and Hutus try to

reconcile, their Muslim countrymen believe they could

learn something about tolerance and solidarity from


"Reconciliation is not necessary for Muslims in

Rwanda, because we do not view the world through a

racial or ethnic lens," Sagahutu said.


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