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Lightning kills 15 worshippers in Rwanda, as government cracks down on unsafe churches

Caskets of those who died from a lightning struck at the Gihembe Seventh Day Adventist Church during a funeral service in Nyaruguru district, Rwanda. Photo via Nyaruguru District Twitter

Caskets of those who died from a lightning strike at the Gihemvu Seventh-day Adventist Church in Nyaruguru district, Rwanda. Photo via Nyaruguru District Twitter

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — As the Rwandan government continues to shut down houses of worship it deems unsafe and dissenters charge it with trampling on religious rights, lightning struck and killed 15 worshippers in the country’s south.

The strike Saturday (March 10), which also injured 140 parishioners, was further proof to those who support the closures that they are necessary to protect people from structures that pose lethal risks.  

“This is a tragic but apt rejoinder to those who have been complaining about the authorities’ closure of places of worship that do not meet the minimum safety, security and health requirements imposed on places where large numbers of the public are expected to congregate,” wrote Rwandan Mwene Kalinda in a letter to The New Times, a government-owned English-language daily.

The government last month closed more than 700 churches in Kigali — plus hundreds of churches and mosques outside the capital — citing failures to comply with building codes. Many of the closed churches have been Pentecostal, a fast-growing denomination in the predominantly Christian nation.

The closures were also accompanied by the arrest of six pastors who were charged with planning a rally against the closures in Rwanda, where the administration of President Paul Kagame has drawn harsh criticism from human rights advocates for its treatment of dissenters.

David Himbara, a Rwandan international development advocate based in Canada, and others familiar with the country’s politics say Kagame has targeted churches because they “offered a slight space for daring to imagine and talk about change.”

The Gihemvu Seventh-day Adventist Church, which closed after Saturday’s incident, is in a mountainous region near the country’s border with Burundi, an area prone to lightning strikes. Although there has been no official confirmation, there are reports that the church did not have a lightning rod. The previous day a student died in a lightning strike in the area. 

Emmanuel Rumeresha, a church elder, said church leaders had warned the congregation against using mobile phones in the building due to the lightning threat.

He said the congregation had just welcomed the preacher onto the pulpit when it started raining.

“Suddenly, there was a big bang, I saw a ‘thunderbolt’ strike the worshippers. We all fell down for a minute,” Rumeresha told The New Times.

The Rev. Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, mourned the dead. “Our hearts go out to our dear church members in Rwanda who have suffered this very difficult loss. What a tragedy to have such a strange occurrence of lightning striking during a church service,” Wilson posted on Facebook.

About the author

Fredrick Nzwili

7 Comments

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  • “Although there has been no official confirmation, there are reports that the church did not have a lightning rod.”

    Faith, greed or poverty? – whichever way it’s a tragedy

    “The most practical and dramatic victory of science over religion occurred in the 17th Century, when churches began to put up lightning conductors” – Issac Asimov

  • If I were in a particularly waspy mood, I could say…

    All Pentecostal and evangelicals in church on Sunday and such? I can hear it all now, the Catholics saying, “Thank god the lightning didn’t hit us.”

    But I won’t say that, because I would be accused by The Usual Suspects that I am being irreligious, or hate god, or something silly like that. And then The Other Usual Suspects would say that we can’t understand god’s wonderful plan for us, and his ways are not our ways, or perhaps he is punishing Rwanda for its Who-too or Tootsie sins.

    So, I won’t say nothing.

  • It is rather interesting to read a comment by someone whose almost complete package of information on Pentecostals, evangelicals, and Catholics is how to spell “Pentecostals”, “evangelicals”, and “Catholics” and that it has something to do with that Jesus fella that came a cropper in Jerusalem back awhile along the lines of “the Catholics saying, ‘Thank god the lightning didn’t hit us.’” suggest that he might be accused of being irreligious, or hating god, or something “silly” like that when he never misses a chance to be irreligious, thumb his nose at god, or otherwise express ridicule and contempt.

  • Why, Bobby Joe or Joe bob, whichever of you is writing today…

    Ridicule and contempt seem to be all that you express, as witnessed by this very posting.

    Funny how it works.

    If you want more in depth commentary, I would suggest you refer to mark Twain’s comments about churches and lightning rods, the long discussions around the Sutherland Springs shootings, and the Rwandan catholic church’s apologies for its participation in the massacres in Rwanda.

  • “Ridicule and contempt seem to be all that you express, as witnessed by”:

    “All Pentecostal and evangelicals in church on Sunday and such? I can hear it all now, the Catholics saying, ‘Thank god the lightning didn’t hit us.’”

    “But I won’t say that, because I would be accused by The Usual Suspects that I am being irreligious, or hate god, or something silly like that. And then The Other Usual Suspects would say that we can’t understand god’s wonderful plan for us, and his ways are not our ways, or perhaps he is punishing Rwanda for its Who-too or Tootsie sins.”

    -=and=-

    “God helps those who help themselves.”

    “Not healing amputees is part of god’s wonderful plan– perhaps for the prosthetics industry. They actually perform the miracles.”

    “God works in mysterious ways.”

    “Healing amputees would mean that no one has to rely on faith any more. What would be the fun of that?”

    “Funny how it works.”

    Indeed.

    Mark Twain was funny, and then in his old age he became just sad.

    You’re ahead of him, you’re already just sad.

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