PARIS, Sept. 4 -- Seven years ago, at the height of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, a priest called Wenceslas Munyeshyaka presided over the Saint Famille Church in Kigali, the country's dusty capital.
It was at Saint Famille where thousands of frightened civilians sought refuge from the machetes of the brutal Interhahamwe militia. It was there, Munyeshyaka's accusers say, that the Catholic priest turned against them. Like a number of Rwandan clerics, he is implicated in the country's horrific ethnic slaughter, which killed up to 800,000 people.
Today, the Munyeshyaka lives quietly in Les Andelys, a French town in Normandy, nestled between the Seine River and steep, chalky cliffs. But, perhaps, not for much longer.
A landmark trial in Brussels, Belgium, has re-stirred criticism about the controversial role of Roman Catholic and other clergy during the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath. And it has raised fresh questions about why some, like Munyeshyaka, still live freely overseas.
In June, a Belgian jury convicted four Rwandans, including two Benedictine nuns, for abetting in the killings of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutu. Sisters Gertrude and Maria Kisito were sentenced to 15 and 12 years in prison, respectively, for complicity in the deaths of 7,000 refugees at their monastery in Butare. The pair are appealing their sentences with the help of a Benedictine monastery in Belgium, which sheltered them since 1994.
In July, charges were pressed against two other Rwandan clerics living in Europe. The Rev. Emmanual Rukundo was arrested in Switzerland for allegedly participating in the genocide. The Roman Catholic priest, who has worked at a parish near Geneva since 1999, is appealing plans to transfer him to the United Nations' criminal tribunal in Tanzania.
The UN court is also seeking Athanase Seromba, who currently serves in a parish in Florence, Italy. Seromba allegedly paid killers to drive a Caterpillar tractor over his church, crushing at least 2,000 refugees inside. The Catholic Church has defended the priest, who claims he fled his church in Kibuye before the killings took place.
Rwandan officials and human rights activists have criticized Western countries for failing to hunt down genocide suspects within their borders. The censure also extends to the Catholic Church, whose decades-old presence in Rwanda remains powerful.
"The Rwandan church did nothing to stop the genocide," survivor Justine said bitterly, during an interview in Brussels. The 34-year-old Rwandan refused to disclose her last name, since she is living in Belgium illegally. A native of Butare, she attended the trial against the two nuns.
"I wanted to hear again how my neighbors, my family, my friends were killed," Justine said. "It was very sad. I had a hard time sleeping at night."
Following the Brussels trial, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls reiterated a 1996 statement by Pope John Paul II, distancing the Catholic establishment from the genocide.
"The Church ... cannot be held responsible for the guilt of its members, who have acted against the law of the Gospel," Navarro-Valls said. "They, themselves, will be called to give account of their actions."
But scholars and human rights activists fault Rwanda's church hierarchy for inaction, and sometimes complicity in the killings. And they criticize Western clergy for nurturing an apartheid atmosphere in Rwanda that fueled the hate.
The predominately Catholicmissionaries who arrived in the country more than a century ago first favored its Tutsi minority. But in 1956, Rwanda's new bishop, Monsignor Andre Perraudin, shifted his support to the Hutus.
Today, "the Catholic Church and also other churches are not ready to condemn," said French historian Charles de Lespinay, who has written about the church's role in Rwanda. "The church has a hard time recognizing that some of its members are accomplices or direct authors in this genocide."
But the case of the Rev. Munyeshakya also illustrates the difficulty in separating fact from fiction in the murky annals of the Rwandan conflict.
A number of witnesses and genocide survivors accuse Munyeshakya of having openly collaborated with Hutu militia, and of betraying Tutsis who sought shelter in his church. Toting a pistol, the priest allegedly raped some of the female refugees, according to African Rights, a London-based watchdog group that has interviewed hundreds of genocide survivors.
"Wenceslas, he said: 'Put the cancrelats to one side so they can join their own,'" Yolanda Mukagasana, 47, reportedly told the Brussels court this spring, referring to a term for Tutsi used by Hutu extremists.
In 1995, several Rwandans filed charges against Munyeshakya in France, where he had been welcomed into the southern diocese of Viviers the previous fall. In 1996, a French appeals court declared itself incompetent to judge acts committed in a foreign country, by and against foreigners. But in 1998, the Court of Cassation, France's highest court, overturned the ruling.
Last September, French judge Roger La Loire requested authorization to travel to Rwanda and investigate charges against Munyeshyaka.
"There has been a history of political resistance. But after some difficult years, things seem to have taken on a normal rhythm," said William Bourdon, a Paris-based lawyer for the Rwandan plaintiffs in the case. Bourdon believes the Munyeshyaka inquiry will be wrapped up early next year.
Munyeshyaka could not be reached at his home in Normandy, where he has been a member of the Evreux diocese since 1997. The Rev. Stanislas Lalanne, spokesman for the Council of Bishops of France, said he had no new information about the priest.
But accounts faxed by the Bishops' Council offer another picture of the priest's role in Rwanda. One family of genocide survivors reportedly told Henri Blanchard, a White Father missionary in Rwanda, that Munyeshyaka was fearless in condemning the Hutu militia, and in providing refuge for those who sought help.
"Those who were close to him seemed to me unanimous in saying that it was first because of his actions that refugees at the Center of St. Paul and St. Famille could finally be saved," Blanchard wrote of Munyeshyaka. But, he added, an atmosphere of retribution now flourished in post-genocide Rwanda. Those who might defend the priest, he said, were afraid to do so.
For its part, the French church insists it is not protecting Munyeshyaka.
"There is no new Touvier affair!" the Bishops' Council said in a statement, referring to Nazi war criminal Paul Touvier, who was sheltered in French monasteries during four decades on the run.
At the Maredret monastery in Belgium, Benedictine Abbot Nicolas Dayas is also unapologetic about having sheltered the two convicted Rwandan nuns. And he denied allegations the monastery had pressured other nuns to support Sisters Gertrude and Maria Kisoto.
"We never hid anything," Dayas said, during a telephone interview. "The (Belgian) justice minister always knew where the sisters could be found."
"I couldn't leave them on the street," the abbot added. "These are my sisters. I would have done this for anybody."