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20 Years Ago: Remembering Rwanda’s Sabbath Massacre


On April 12, 1994, thousands of Tutsi refugees sought safety in the Adventist church in Mugonero, in the Rwandan countryside. And on April 16 – this day 20 years ago – they were killed. It seemed unbelievable. Adventists inside the church; Adventists outside. Adventist church members killing each other?

The local Adventist church leader, Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, was convicted of genocide in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2003. In 1995 I reported on the story for Spectrum, and in 2002 (thanks to a generous grant), I traveled to Tanzania and Rwanda to observe the trial, see the place of the massacre, and interview survivors. I went to Tanzania again in 2003 to cover the sentencing at the International Criminal Tribunal.

It was a difficult story. The people who talked to me all had their agendas. It was emotional. It was political. There were no easy answers. Was Ntakirutimana guilty? A very old man, who hardly seemed to understand what was going on? No, he did not personally take his machete into the church. And I found it hard to see him as utterly coldhearted and evil. After all the evidence, I believed he was more guilty of omission than anything else. Yes, many people died on his watch. He had clout in the community. But he took his family and he left. He told the people in the church that he could not help them. Could he have helped them? It’s very hard to say – I simply don’t know what it was like to be in his place. 

Ntakirutimana served 10 years in prison, and died shortly after his release.

Adventists gained the notoriety of having the first clergy ever to be convicted of genocide.

But beyond that, it seems of paramount importance to do everything we as a church can to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again, anywhere. We must continue to be vigilant everywhere, to raise love above politics and compassion above cosmetic differences.

Of course, Adventists can also claim ADRA worker Carl Wilkens, the only American who stayed in Rwanda during the genocide and civil war, working tirelessly to help victims and save hundreds of lives.

Rwanda-Searching for Truth in Reports of the Sabbath Massacre by Spectrum/Adventist Forum

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