For three years, the Nigeria-based Boko Haram terrorist group, which has aligned itself with ISIS, has carried out murderous attacks in neighboring Cameroon. The advertised purpose of that onslaught, in which more than 1,100 people have been killed, is to turn the country into an “Islamic state.” Five people were murdered in the most recent attack, a suicide bombing at a mosque in Neguetchewe.
Rather than seeing the country’s Muslim minority as a fifth column, many within its Christian population — led by prominent clerics, such as Joseph Klofou of the Protestant Church of Cameroon – have volunteered to guard mosques so that Muslims can worship in peace. Muslims have reciprocated that gesture by standing guard outside Christian houses of worship.
“I feel frustrated seeing my brothers and sisters dying,” explained Klofou. “I must act while praying to God to send his angels and warriors to fight Boko Haram because He is the merciful God of armies.”
Referring to Boko haram as “a group of bad people,” Djafarou Alamine of Cameroon’s central mosques declared that “Islam condemns all that they have been doing to both Christians and Muslims who are all God’s creatures even though they have religious differences.”
This inter-faith cooperation is not unusual in Cameroon, contends Midjiyawa Bakari, governor of the country’s Far North region.
“Cameroon is a country where priests and imams both go to churches and mosques to preach and pray during ecumenical services,” reported AllAfrica.com. “It is a treasure to keep.”
Although the inter-communal self-defense project has been applauded by government officials, it is an entirely private initiative in which neighbors of different religious backgrounds organize to protect each other without the state’s involvement. All of this offers a striking and instructive contrast to the conditions that prevailed in Rwanda that led to the genocidal massacres that descended on that nation twenty-two years ago. Up to 1.1 million people were annihilated by government-backed death squads over the course of roughly one hundred days. Most of the victims were part of the Tutsi ethnic group while the government was in the hands of people identified as Hutus.
Rwanda is a country in which ninety percent of the population, at the beginning of the 1990s, identified as Christians. Unfortunately, as Timothy Longman of Vassar College points out, during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries colonial administrators had created a political system in which the churches were treated as adjuncts to the government – and all positions of public influence were defined by a racial caste system. Rwandans considered to have more “European” features were labeled “Tutsis,” and given access to power. Those with what the colonialists regarded as less desirable physical traits were called “Hutus” and saw their once-autonomous tribal leadership abolished – relegating them to second-class status. This led to decades of intermittent ethnic warfare, which in turn entrenched the politics of ethnic collectivism in Rwandan society – including the Christian churches.
“The leaders of the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches were all close associates” of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimama, and many had key positions in his “Hutu Power” government, Longman points out. In 1993, the Hutu Power regime organized a plan to massacre Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus who were seen as traitors. Weapons were cached, and death squads quietly made preparations. In December 1993, Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian officer commanding a UN peacekeeping mission to Rwanda, learned of the impending slaughter from a defector but was forbidden to intervene to prevent it. The massacres begin in April following the death of President Habyarimana in a suspicious plane crash.
When the death squads began their rampage, terrified Tutsis sought sanctuary in churches – only to find no refuge.
Church leaders in Rwanda “helped make genocide possible by making ethnic violence understandable and acceptable to the population,” Longman writes. This was “not simply because church leaders hoped to avoid opposing their governmental allies but because ethnic conflict was itself an integral part of Christianity in Rwanda. Christians could kill without obvious qualms of conscience, even in the church, because Christianity as they had always known it had been a religion defined by struggles for power, and ethnicity had always been at the base of those struggles.” (Emphasis added.)
This was why machete-wielding death squads “attended mass before going out to kill,” or, if the victims had been cattle-penned in a church, the killers would pause “during the massacres to pray at the altar.” Like the Aztec priests who personally slaughtered an estimated 30,000 victims during the 1487 dedication of a temple to Huitzilopochtli, the devout murderers in Rwanda “felt their work was consistent with church teachings.”
Acting as palace prophets on behalf of the political elite, Rwanda’s churches made the slaughter “morally permissible,” Longman continues. Some individual congregants and clergy “took courageous stands, even risking their lives to save those threatened, but the majority of people in the churches gave tacit or even open support to the genocide. Church officials lent credibility to those organizing the genocide by calling on their members to support the new government.”
With churches being used as slaughter pens, Christian Tutsis were offered sanctuary in mosques.
Jean-Pierre Sagahutu, a Tutsi who saw his father and nine members of his family butchered by fellow Christians, was offered refuge by a Hutu Muslim family.
“I know people in America think Muslims are terrorists, but for Rwandans they were our freedom fighters during the genocide,” Sagahutu told a Washington Post reporter in 2002. “If it weren’t for the Muslims, my whole family would be dead,” agrees Aisha Umwimbabazi, who was struck by the fact that mosques, unlike churches, rejected the state-defined ethnic categories and social divisions.
Rwanda’s Hutu Muslims refused to allow the government to depict their neighbors as their enemies. As the late historian and human rights activist Dr. Alison Des Forges documented in her book Leave None to Tell the Story, what happened in Rwanda was not “an uncontrollable outburst of rage by a people consumed by `ancient tribal hatreds,’” but rather the result of “the deliberate choice of a modern elite to foster hatred and fear to keep itself in power.”
At a time when many governments are fostering collectivist hatred and fear, officials in Cameroon are to be commended for encouraging citizens to regard each other as neighbors and cooperate to protect each other. Regrettably, albeit predictably, while Cameroon’s population is uniting to defend the country from terrorism, the national government’s cross-border military operations against Boko Haram may be exacerbating that threat by killing civilians and laying waste to entire villages.
Terrorism is a plague cultivated, nurtured, aggravated, and exploited by political elites working through the state, which is why the state cannot protect us from it.