Power of prayer

Rwanda genocide survivor a witness to forgiveness

by luke eggleston
sun staff writer

The power of prayer is the topic of countless homilies and a cornerstone of Christian faith. For Immaculee Ilibagiza, that power was tried in one of the most harrowing situations imaginable.

In the year 1994, the world witnessed one of the bloodiest and explosive events in recent history when Rwandah descended into civil war. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were massacred by Hutu militia. Roughly 500,000 were butchered within a span of 100 days. The final death toll estimates numbered from 800,000 to 1 million.

A university student at the time, Ilibagiza spent 91 days in that period hiding in a local pastor’s bathroom with seven other women.

While her country was wrenched by the madness of ethnic strife, Ilibagiza found peace and tranquility. Her body deteriorated as she went from 110 pounds to just 65, but Ilibagiza’s soul grew full and rich.

Initially, Ilibagiza boiled with justified rage, but by saying the Lord’s Prayer and meditating on its meaning, she was ultimately able to transform that negativity into forgiveness.

Since emerging from that pastor’s bathroom, Ilibagiza has taken her message of forgiveness to the world. Dec. 6, she will bring her remarkable story of witness to Central New York when Our Lady of the Finger Lakes Apostolate will host “An Evening with Immaculee” at the Oncenter in Syracuse.

The 6 p.m. event will also feature singer/songwriter Mark Mallett.

“I’m discussing mostly my life during the genocide and how I found God and also my journey of forgiveness,” she said.

Ilibagiza said that praying the rosary throughout her ordeal was crucial to her transformation.

Early on, she longed for God to bring justice to the people who killed everyone in her family, save a brother who was studying abroad.

“It was difficult, but the most difficult thing was finding the will to even wish to forgive,” she said. “I felt so justified. What more justification do you need than having your mother and father killed?”

Iligabiza realized the venom of the anger was slowly destroying her spirit, but the words of the Lord’s Prayer shifted her heart.

Through the rosary, she said that God began nudging her away from the anger.

“God was telling me ‘I want you to know how much this is hurting you,’” she said. “When you let go, then you can trust me.”

Ultimately, Christ’s words on the cross — “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do” — became a revelation to her.

Ilibagiza began to have a keen understanding of what Christ’s suffering on the cross meant. She also meditated on the suffering Mary felt as she watched her son crucified.

She found comparisons to her own situation.

“I thought, ‘These people are killing us and they don’t get it,’” she said. “When has someone killed a million people and hoped for a place in paradise?”

She realized that if she allowed herself to succumb to the hatred of her people’s tormentors, there could be no change.

“Your hating them will not change a thing,” she said. “Your praying for them can change something. Do you choose love or do you choose hate?”

Once Ilibagiza had turned her heart to God’s wish, she could no longer even remember her rage. To this day, she says the rosary for those who slaughtered her family.

During her travels, many people have told Ilibagiza that her story changed their lives. She hopes the same will be true for the people she meets in Syracuse.

In addition to prayer, Ilibagiza learned English while she was in hiding. After surviving the genocide, she accepted a position in the United Nations, eventually moving to the U.S. in 1998. While still deeply rooted in her homeland, Ilibagiza now considers herself American. She hopes that her message will help people prepare for what many believe will be economic disaster in the near future.

“I am now part of this country,” she said. “Through God and prayer, they can get through anything. Whatever you go through, hold on to hope. I am here to share my story.”

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