Religions in Rwanda


The most recent statistics on religion in Rwanda were published by the US Government in 2013, yet the source information takes back to the national Census of 2002 which states that 56.9% of the Rwanda’s population is Roman Catholic, 26% is Protestant, 11.1% is Seventh-day Adventist, 4.6% is Muslim (mainly Sunni), 1.7% claims no or other religious affiliation, and 0.1% practices traditional indigenous beliefs.

The figures for Protestants include the increasing number of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses (36,000 in 2013) and evangelical Protestant groups. There is also a small population of Baha’is. There has been a proliferation of small, usually Christian-linked schismatic religious groups since the 1994 genocide.

There are small and secretive communities of Hindus and Buddhists, comprising mostly foreign adherents, typically businessmen from China and India as well as university professors and students. Neither religion seriously attempts conversion in Rwanda or has places of worship.

Current context

Foreign missionaries and church-linked non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of various religious groups operate in the country. Foreign missionaries openly promote their religious beliefs and the Government welcomes their development assistance.

The Constitution of Rwanda provides for freedom of religion and the Government generally respects this right in practice. Local government officials sometimes detain Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in security patrols. In 2007, the US government received no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice.

Colonial period

Although the ethnic divisions and tensions between Hutu and Tutsi terminate the colonial era, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) report on the genocide states,

In the colonial era, under German and then Belgian rule, Roman Catholic missionaries, inspired by the overtly racist theories of 19th century Europe, concocted a destructive ideology of ethnic cleavage and racial ranking that attributed superior qualities to the country’s Tutsi minority, since the missionaries ran the colonial-era schools, these pernicious values were systematically transmitted to several generations of Rwandans.

When the Roman Catholic missionaries came to Rwanda in the late 1880s, they contributed to the “Hamitic” theory of race origins which taught that the Tutsi were a superior race. The Church has been considered to have played a significant role in fomenting racial divisions between Hutu and Tutsi, in part because they found more willing converts among the majority Hutu.

1994 genocide

An estimated 800,000 Rwandans died during ethnic violence over a brief span of 100 days between April and July 1994. Most of the dead were Tutsis, and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus.

The genocide started after the passing-away of the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana ‘’a Hutu’’, in the shooting down of his plane above Kigali airport on 6 April 1994. The full details of that specific incident remain unclear however, the death of the president was by no means the only cause of the mayhem. (Ethnic tension in Rwanda is not new. Disagreements between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis are common, but the animosity between them grew substantially after the end of the Belgian colonial regime.)

Timothy Longman has provided the most detailed discussion of the role of religion in the Rwandan genocide in Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda, published in 2010. Longman claims that both Catholic and Protestant churches helped to make the genocide possible by giving moral sanction to the killing. Churches had longed played ethnic politics themselves, favoring the Tutsi during the colonial period then switching allegiance to the Hutu after 1959, sending a message that ethnic discrimination was consistent with church teaching. The church leaders had close ties with the political leaders and after the genocide began, the church leaders called on the population to support the new interim government, the very government supporting the genocide.

At the same time, churches did not uniformly support the genocide. In the period leading up to the genocide‘’1990–1994’’, major splits emerged within most churches between moderates who promoted democratic change and conservatives allied with the Habyarimana regime. Many of the clergy were Tutsi, and they generally supported democratic reform, but many moderate Hutu within the churches supported reform as well. Churches provided major support to the formation of the new human-rights groups that emerged in the early 1990s. When the genocide began in 1994, some clergy and other church leaders opposed the violence, even at the risk of their own lives.

Some individual members of the religious community attempted to protect civilians, sometimes at great risk to their lives. For example, Mgr. Thaddée Ntihinyurwa (fr) of Cyangugu preached against the genocide from the pulpit and tried unsuccessfully to rescue three Tutsi religious brothers from an attack, while Sr. Felicitas Niyitegeka of the Auxiliaires de l’Apostolat in Gisenyi smuggled Tutsi across the border into Zaire before a militant militia executed her in retaliation.

In her book Left to Tell: Discovering God in the Rwandan Holocaust (2006), Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Tutsi woman, describes hiding with seven other Tutsi women for 91 days in a bathroom in the house of Pastor Murinzi – for the majority of the genocide. At the St Paul Pastoral Centre in Kigali about 2,000 people found refuge and most of them survived, due to the efforts of Fr Célestin Hakizimana. This priest “intervened at every attempt by the militia to abduct or murder” the refugees in his centre. In the face of powerful opposition, he tried to hold off the killers with persuasion or bribes.

On November 20, 2016, the Catholic Church in Rwanda released a statement signed by nine bishops apologizing for the role of its members in the genocide of 1994.