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Rwanda 'Genocide' Priest is on Trial - 2004-09-20

The genocide trial of a Rwandan Roman Catholic priest accused of ordering the massacre of thousands of his Tutsi parishioners during Rwanda's 1994 genocide opens in Arusha, Tanzania Monday.

Father Athanase Seromba stands accused of ordering his church in Nyange Parish, in which more than 2,000 Tutsis were hiding, to be bulldozed by Hutu extremists. Those who had not died during the bulldozing were immediately killed by the extremists.

When the 1994 genocide came to a close, Father Seromba fled Rwanda and eventually sought refuge in Italy. He surrendered to the Tanzanian authorities two years ago.

Father Seromba denies the genocide charges, arguing that he was powerless to stop the massacre.

His trial opened Monday at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.

A spokesman for the tribunal, Roland Amoussouga, explains that Father Seromba is the first Catholic priest to come before the tribunal. He cautions that Father Seromba is being tried as an individual.

"He's not representing the whole Catholic Church. His trial should never be seen as the trial of the Catholic Church," he says.

The tribunal was set up shortly after the 1994 genocide in which Hutu extremists killed 800-thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The first trial opened in 1997. Since then, 22 former government ministers, journalists, army officers, and other have been tried and most of them have been convicted of genocide.

The trial process is supposed to end by 2008.