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Rwanda Turns to Islam After Genocide

Rwanda Turns to Islam After Genocide



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 leave. 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 Islam. "Reconciliation is not necessary for Muslims in Rwanda, because we do not view the world through aracial or ethnic lens," Sagahutu said.

Associated Press Writer