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Rwandan Politics Intrudes on American Church

Archbishop told Anglican congregation to cancel talk by Hotel Rwanda subject Paul Rusesabagina.
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A suburban Chicago church sought leadership from Rwanda amid theological disputes with the Episcopal Church. This week, it found itself in conflict with its leaders over Rwandan politics.

All Souls Anglican Church had scheduled Paul Rusesabagina, whose life was featured in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda, to speak during Sunday morning services. The Wheaton, Illinois, church, a member of the Rwandan-led Anglican Mission in America (AMiA), had advertised Rusesabagina's appearance as part of a fundraiser to build a school in Gashirabwoba, Rwanda.

On Thursday, however, All Soul's pastor J. Martin Johnson received a message from AMiA President Canon Ellis Brust that Emmanuel Kolini, the Anglican archbishop of Rwanda, requested that the church not have Rusesabagina speak.

Rusesabagina has been at odds with the president of Rwanda. The archbishop feared that the event could create a strain in the relationship between the Anglican Church of Rwanda and the government.

"Truly I am horrified that we could have such a negative impact without meaning to," Johnson told Christianity Today. "I had no idea this was a controversial issue."

Rwandan president Paul Kagame has criticized the Oscar-nominated movie Hotel Rwanda for inaccurately portraying the country's 1994 genocide.

Hotel Rwanda highlights Paul Rusesabagina's role as a hotel manager who saved more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees. An estimated 800,000 people were massacred during 100 days of the genocide.

Kagame disputed Hotel Rwanda's portrayal of Rusesabagina as a hero. Kagame has said that Rusesabagina happened to be there and that he happened to survive because he was not in the category of those being hunted.

Rusesabagina criticized Kagame in his 2006 autobiography An Ordinary Man, saying that Kagame surrounds himself with corrupt businessmen.

"The same kind of impunity that festered after the 1959 revolution is happening again, only with a different race-based elite in power," he wrote. "We have changed the dancers but the music remains the same."

Instead of speaking at the church, Rusesabagina spoke at the nearby Wyndemere Auditorium in Wheaton Sunday night.

Director of Operations for All Souls Jennifer Merck, who was involved in organizing the original event, said many in the church were disappointed when Rusesabagina did not speak.

"My observation is that in the United States, we are so comfortable with our right to free speech," Merck said. "The fact that we listen to someone has nothing to do with whether we agree with him or not. That's not so true in the rest of the world."

Many, including Merck, left the Episcopal Church over the issue of homosexuality and chose to be under the oversight of the church in Rwanda.

"I don't know that we really knew then what it meant for us to be connected to Rwanda and frankly, we're beginning to find that out," she said. "It raises questions about what does it mean to live in the global church."

Since Rusesabagina had received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush, the All Souls pastor thought it would be a good way to attract attention for the school the church is trying to build.

"He was controversial or outspoken, but we have named him a hero in this country," Johnson said. "I thought it was a bit tacky because of the film, thinking, 'We're going a bit Hollywood with this, but oh well, it's for the good of the kingdom.'"

But after President Kagame found out Rusesabagina was supposed to speak at a church overseen by archbishop of Rwanda, he contacted Kolini, who then sent a message to the church requesting that the event be canceled, Johnson said.

"The bigger reality for us is having to accept the whole concept of obedience, and that is a harder cultural pill to swallow than I realized," he said. "I'm forced to encounter my own resistance and bias."

Johnson, who was previously a priest in the Episcopal Church, has been under the Rwandan authority since 2004.

"He simply said, 'Please don't. Your church can't have this man speak there,'" Johnson said. "My initial response was, 'Can they tell us what to do?' We just have to say, 'Okay, fine, sorry,' and that's what we've done."

The church had sent out announcements to several people in the Chicago area and Johnson was embarrassed to have to cancel the event.

"I don't know if we'll simply have to get masters degrees in political science to keep working in the church," Johnson said and laughed. "I've never even been to Rwanda, but we are Rwandans now."



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