Pope John Paul II was much loved in Africa and traveled widely on the continent. But the outpouring of grief at his death should not eclipse the way in which the Catholic Church dealt with the genocide in Rwanda and its position on the the use of condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
"He stood for truth and promoted respect for human dignity by speaking against social injustice in the world," wrote a contributor from Zambia. "He always said nothing but the truth and he was fighting war, poverty and terrorism better than no one else because he was trying to unify all faiths, which is the root of all the problems the world is facing," said another from Senegal. "I remember his visit to Nigeria during the regime of the late General Sani Abacha. During one of my country's darkest moments, he managed to bring hope to a populace badly in need of it," was what a Nigerian writer expressed. These were just a few of the many comments posted to the BBC website in the days after the death of Catholic Pope John Paul II. As millions streamed into Rome to get a glimpse of their icon as he lay in state, it was clear from these comments and the overwhelming media coverage that the tens of millions of Catholics on the African continent were in deep mourning for the loss of their spiritual leader.
The Pope was a well-known face in Africa and perhaps it was the fact that he traveled widely that people felt closer to the head of their faith, even loved him for his willingness to show solidarity in often difficult circumstances. He traveled extensively on the continent, visiting 13 times. He took a pragmatic view towards the sometimes uneasy tension between traditional beliefs and the Catholic faith, broadening the base of Catholic worship on the continent. The estimated 100 million Catholic worshippers in Africa will remember him for expressing concern about Africa, denouncing abuse of power and corruption, calling for human rights to be respected in Sudan, appealing for tensions between Christians and Muslims to be relaxed and calling on Nigeria's former military regime to free political prisoners and respect its citizens.
The overwhelming majority of voices on the BBC website were positive, but his role on the African continent does not come without criticism. One of these criticisms was with regards the Rwandan genocide, which this week marks its 11th anniversary. "The Pope was a man of double standards," wrote Thomas Nyambane from Nairobi, Kenya. "He failed to apologise to Rwandese, Africans and humanity in general for the role played by the Catholic church in the Rwanda genocide. Why did he go ahead to protect and even call for the release of the Catholic bishops and fathers who were directly involved in the genocide? We all know of the fathers and bishops of the Catholic church who lured Tutsis and moderate Hutus to be killed in churches."
Last year, as part of our commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Pambazuka News carried an article on the role of the Catholic Church in the Rwandan genocide (http://www.pambazuka.org/index.php?issue=150). As one of our contributors wrote in response to a letter defending the Catholic Church: "The collective responsibility of the Church goes well beyond the despicable actions of certain of its members. It was Catholic missionaries who created the false stereotypes of Hutu and Tutsi in the first place, which led to the unbridgeable chasm between them. It was the Church, through its control of the education system, that brainwashed all Rwandans into believing their destructive ideology. It was the Church that made Rwandans believe that ethnic identity was paramount. It was the Church that effectively co-ruled colonial Rwandan with the Belgians. It was the Church that gave moral legitimation to the Hutu dictators who ruled the country after independence."
The response went further to say: "Throughout the 100 days, the Church as an institution failed utterly ever to condemn the genocide, indeed ever to acknowledge that there WAS a genocide happening before its very eyes, not to say with its cooperation. Never did it demand that the genocidaires halt their targeted killings. Nor, after it was over, did the leaders of the Church in Rwanda ever acknowledge their corporate responsibility or apologize for their complicity and/or passivity. As for the Vatican, while it has acknowledged that certain bad apples existed, it too has consistently denied any institutional responsibility."
It is perhaps not surprising that despite the vast international media coverage of the death of the Pope, there has been virtual silence about the role of the Catholic Church in the Rwanda genocide. While rivers were engorged with the bodies of slaughtered Rwandans, the media were either silent, or, at best, portrayed the conflict as merely another typical example of tribal conflict that, in their view, characterizes the continent of Africa.
It is in the area of the fight against HIV/AIDS that the Pope garnered the most criticism for his failure to endorse the use of condoms, seen as crucial in stemming the epidemic. Critics contend that the Catholic Church, with its vast resources and wide access to communities, could have played a crucial role in fighting the epidemic, but had instead chosen to go against the realities of the continent through its ban on contraceptives – and at the same time lending support to the Bush campaign against contraceptives. Not only was the Pope’s stance against contraception seen as representative of a bygone era, but it also undermined the realization of the right of women to have control over the own bodies. This, critics argue, has not only had a negative effect on the struggle for women’s equal rights but has also perpetuated the unequal status of women in society and thus further contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Again from the BBC web site: "One should not forget the millions of HIV victims, most of them Africans. Had the Pope blessed condoms and family planning programs instead of preaching a rigid and damaging dogma, he certainly could have saved many more souls. Wasn't that his job?"