Rwandan President Paul Kagame has threatened to round up Catholic faithful who visit pilgrimage sites in his country, accusing them of “worshipping poverty”.
“I learned that many young people, as many as thousands… wake up in the early morning, walk for three days to go to (a place) where a vision appeared, a pilgrim land, a place associated with poverty,” Kagame told a youth conference on Wednesday.
“I thought that when you pray, you are praying for what can help improve your lives, praying to get rich and get out of poverty,” he said.
“No one must worship poverty. Do not ever do that again… If I ever hear about this again, that people travelled to go and worship poverty, I will bring trucks and round them up and imprison them, and only release them when the poverty mentality has left them,” said Kagame, himself a Catholic.
Every year thousands of people, many travelling for several days on foot, visit Kibeho, a town in southern Rwanda where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three schoolgirls four decades ago.
But a spokeswoman for the government on Thursday denied that Kagame was referring to Kibeho in his speech, telling AFP that he was likely speaking about a little-known site in western Rwanda.
“In his address at the youth event, President Kagame did not at any point mention a specific pilgrimage site, and certainly not Kibeho,” Yolande Makolo said.
“What he was most likely referring to is an informal pilgrimage-type event that takes place in Rutsiro district, and the point was to encourage young Rwandans to be ambitious and work hard, instead of getting caught up in cult-like rituals,” she said.
It is not clear what prompted the outburst by Rwanda’s iron-fisted ruler and the Catholic Church in the country has not yet made any public comment.
Almost all Rwandans are Christians, with Catholics making up roughly half the population.