President’s Warning: Why Rwandan Pilgrims Face Controversy at Marian Sites

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has delivered a striking message to devout Catholics who embark on yearly pilgrimages to locations believed to have witnessed Marian apparitions. Accusing them of “worshipping poverty,” Kagame’s words have sparked a debate.

Every year, numerous pilgrims undertake these journeys, sometimes covering the distance on foot, to the town of Kibeho. This town gained fame due to multiple reports of the Virgin Mary appearing to three young girls during the early 1980s.

However, this year’s Assumption Day, observed on August 15, saw a sizable gathering of over 20,000 attendees at a mass in Kibeho. President Kagame seized this moment to express his disapproval, calling the pilgrimage “unsettling.” He went further, warning, “Should I hear of this recurring, with people journeying to celebrate poverty, I shall mobilize trucks to collect and confine them. Only upon shedding this impoverished mindset will they be released.” It remains unclear what prompted this strong stance from Kagame, who himself follows the Catholic faith.

Yet, a government spokeswoman sought to clarify on Thursday that President Kagame’s speech did not specifically target Kibeho. Rather, it seemed he was addressing an undisclosed site in western Rwanda.

“In his address at the youth event, President Kagamé did not refer to any particular pilgrimage site, certainly not Kibeho,” stated Yolande Makolo. She further explained, “He was likely referring to an informal pilgrimage-like activity in the Rutsiro district. The President aimed to inspire young Rwandans to strive for success and diligence, steering them away from influences of ritualistic practices.”

As of now, there has been no immediate response from the Catholic Church. In Rwanda, Christianity is deeply rooted, with half the population identifying as Catholics.

The first series of Marian apparitions occurred in Kibeho in 1981. The Church officially recognized these occurrences in 2001. Over time, Kibeho has transformed into a renowned pilgrimage spot for Catholics worldwide, drawn by the hope of miracles and healing.

Recent reports from local media suggest that the Catholic Church is seeking substantial funding—3.5 billion Rwandan francs (approximately 2.7 million euros)—to enhance the pilgrimage site, ensuring its continued significance.

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