Pope Francis asks 'forgiveness' for church role in Rwandan genocide

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In this file photo, Pope Francis waves to thousands of followers as he arrives at the Manila Cathedral on January 16, 2015 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Pope Francis has asked Rwandan President Paul Kagame for forgiveness for the "sins and failings" of the Catholic Church during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

During a meeting with Kagame Monday at the Vatican, the Pope expressed "solidarity with the victims and with those who continue to suffer the consequences of those tragic events," according to a statement from the Vatican.

Pope Francis acknowledged that priests, nuns and members of the Catholic church had succumbed to hatred and violence in Rwanda, "betraying their own evangelical mission," the Vatican said.

Rwanda's foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo, who accompanied President Kagame on the trip, said the meeting was a positive step forward.

"It allows us to build a stronger base for restoring harmony between Rwandans and the Catholic Church," she added in a statement released by the presidency. In November, the Catholic Church in Rwanda apologized for its members' role in the genocide that saw hundreds of thousands of Rwandans killed in 1994.

Rwandan bishops asked for "forgiveness for sins of hatred and disagreement that happened in the country to the point of hating our own countrymen because of their origin," in a statement read after mass in parishes across the country.

In 1994, Hutu extremists in Rwanda targeted minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a three-month killing spree that left an estimated 800,000 people dead.

Hutu attackers burned down churches with hundreds or thousands of Tutsis inside. The violence was triggered by the death of President Juvénal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu, in a plane crash on April 6, 1994.

Four Catholic priests were indicted by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for their role in the genocide in 2001.

Among them was Rwandan Catholic Priest Athanse Seromba, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for actively participating in the massacre of around 2,000 Tutsis who sought protection in his church.

The United Nations has criticized the Catholic Church in the past for its failure to apologize for its complicity in the killings.

Human rights groups have also joined in the criticism of the church and its role in Rwanda's genocide.

Groups such as African Rights, who have researched the mass slaughter, say there is "overwhelming evidence that church leaders maintained their silence in the face of genocide," according to a 1998 report.

They argue that the small number of indictments do not accurately represent the church's role in the genocide.