There are those who believe religion and politics don't mix, or that they shouldn't be allowed to mix. On the other hand, religion can and does often assume political overtones which can have far-reaching ramifications for a society. Whether these ramifications are desirable or destructive often depends on what side you're on. We have seen religious organisations play a pivotal role in engineering social and political change, sometimes in collaboration with other segments of civil society.
Organised religion has, from time to time, emerged as a powerful force in society, particularly in highly religious countries like the Philippines where the Catholic church has a very visible presence. In China where religion does not quite thrive so well, the role of religion has been somewhat subdued. In the last couple of years, that picture has gradually changed as China woke up to the reality of an obscure sect known as Falun Gong.
According to Falun Gong followers, their purpose is merely to practise breathing exercises which are supposed to be beneficial to their health. Breathing exercises are not unusual in the East. They come in all forms and shapes. Qi gong exercises are based on the notion of qi, which refers to the cosmic forces in the body and the universe. The concept of qi is also central to much of traditional Chinese medicine. On any given day across Asia you'll encounter people doing exercises in the parks and other open spaces. These exercises combine body movements with meditation and controlled breathing techniques. They are particularly popular with the elderly.
The controversy that surrounds Falun Gong is that the authorities in China believe it to be more than just a religion. To them it is nothing but an "evil-cult". Up until 1999 many people in China did not even know about this sect whose leader lives in North America. It all came to light when one Professor He Zuoxiu wrote an article warning about their "deceitful lies". A theoretical physicist, Professor He spends his time exposing and ridiculing all forms of pseudo-science.
Ironically, the mainstream press took a dim view of Professor He's views and he was only able to publish his article in a little-known magazine. In the past his views had not generated much reaction. The Falun Gong expose opened a pandora's box. Angry Falun Gong followers quickly assembled outside the Beijing leaders' compound where they held a vigil demanding an apology. This was the first highly publicised protest by the hitherto unknown sect. It transpired, however, that they had on previous occasions held similar vigils around the homes or offices of people who had tried to portray them in a negative light. Their vigils are said to be peaceful, but when 10,000 people camp outside your premises for days or months, "peaceful" assumes a new complexion.
The authorities in China are leaving nothing to chance. They banned the sect and quickly undertook a systematic clampdown. In spite of a heavy security presence, sect members have, on numerous occasions, managed to hold meetings in high profile venues like Tiananmen Square where they insist on proceeding with their exercises even as the police rain blows on them and cart them away into custody.
The treatment of these sect members has intensified human rights attention on China with foreign observers criticising the authorities for their heavy-handedness in the police brutality which some claim has led to the death of many followers. The authorities in China are convinced that this "evil cult" is a threat to national security and must be crushed at all costs.
In trying to understand the full impact of this emergent social phenomenon, it is worth clarifying what constitutes a cult. Experts see two dimensions: the religious and the social. As for the religious, cults tend to deviate from mainstream religious beliefs and, in effect, set themselves in competition against such religions, offering themselves as a more viable alternative. They often tend to have charismatic leaders who assume god-like status with the claims they either make or encourage about their supernatural powers and the sheer power they seem to exercise on their followers. The teachings of the Falun Gong are considered to be a deviation from orthodox Buddhism.
The social dimension refers to their rejection of popular social practices and conventions. Members of cults are taught, for example, to abandon their families and all aspects of the material world. Cults are known to urge their members to destroy or otherwise dispose of their material possessions and even to eschew medical treatment. Herein lies the danger. There have been too many cases of doomsday cults leading their members into mass suicide or otherwise causing the deaths of innocent people. From the infamous Jonestown disaster in Guyana in 1978 to more recent cases like the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, Aum Shinri Kyo in Japan and the Restoration of the 10 Commandments in Uganda.
It may well be that the majority of the Falun Gong are well-adjusted citizens who just want to get on with their breathing exercises - in which case their persecution is suspect. On the other hand there is always the risk that powerful leaders are manipulating innocent and ignorant followers for selfish political, spiritual or other ends. If that is the case, there is cause for alarm.
Opinion is sharply divided in Hong Kong. The Falun Gong recently held a highly-publicised international conference here. The central authorities in Beijing were none too pleased and they made their displeasure known in no uncertain terms. However, under the one-country two systems policy, the ban on the mainland does not hold in Hong Kong and the sect members are quite within their right to assemble as long as they respect Hong Kong laws.
However, Beijing has sternly warned about the possibility of the sect using Hong Kong as a base for anti-China political activities. This has in turn generated a lot of political heat with the Hong Kong government vowing to keep "a close watch" on the sect's activities and, more controversially, considering whether to invoke the Societies Ordinance against them. Pro-Beijing leaders have similarly been urging the government to rein the sect in. However, the pro-democracy lobby and human rights activists have spoken vehemently against these proposals, claiming they are an unacceptable restriction on civil liberties.
The Hong Kong authorities appear to understand that any effort to enforce the ordinance to rein in the sect would further escalate the controversy and have far-reaching consequences. Yet, they have to be seen to be sensitive to the concerns on the mainland. It is not an easy balance to strike.
Beijing has reason enough to be concerned. Religious activities, though rare, have had pretty dramatic effects on the political landscape in the past. There have been many religious and quasi-religious uprisings in China in the past, of which some of the most memorable are the Boxers, the White Lotus and Tai Ping which rebelled against the Qing dynasty.
When Beijing warns that efforts to turn Hong Kong into a base for subversive activities would not be tolerated, they mean it. Hong Kong authorities are paying heed. A few weeks ago when members of the sect set themselves alight in Tiananmen Square, it began to look as though the authorities' and indeed many ordinary people's worst fears were coming true. It seemed like a sign of things to come, the doomsday scenario in which mass suicide would lead to the death of millions. To many observers, such a scenario, while perhaps far-fetched, cannot altogether be discounted, especially when so little is known about the sect and its leadership.
KAMPALA - Father Dominic Kataribabo's house looked like any other under renovation - the work crew was busy fixing the sewage system and had already raised the roof. Neighbors sat beside the gate to the house and in the yard, watching children wearing rosaries pose for a picture.
But last year, 55 bodies were pulled from the house - part of a purge perpetrated by a Ugandan cult calling itself The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
By some estimates, as many as 1,000 people were found murdered by the cult across the
country.It was about this time last year that the cult started to implode after the apocalypse failed to arrive with the New Year as predicted.
The cult's teachings were based on messages the leaders claimed to receive from the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
They emphasized the restoration of the Ten Commandments and urged members to confess their sins in preparation for the end of the world on December 31, 1999.
But the end never came and questions were inevitably asked of the leaders. Payments to the "church" by members slowed dramatically until it was announced that the deadline for the end of the world had been extended by the Virgin Mary.
March 17 was set as the "new" doomsday and people arrived to pray. They were locked in a church and burned to death on the pretext that the Virgin Mary would deliver them from the end of the world "clothed in flames." In addition to the bodies in the church, investigators found bodies of followers buried all over the country.
Church leaders, including Kataribabo, are still believed to be on the run.
Uganda has many cults, says newspaper editor Charles Onyango-Obbo. Obbo is editor of The Monitor, a newspaper billed as Uganda's only independent daily.
"Every small town has got a small church, small sect, someone has set up shop there. There's much, much more than 200 [churches, cults and sects]."
Obbo says the expansion of cults in Uganda is symptomatic of the country's larger problems.
He said Ugandans faced frustrations with established churches and the government because both had been unable to meet the needs of people coping with multiple traumas dogging the country.
On the Up and Up
Despite being hailed as an up-and-coming power broker in East Africa, Uganda is still reeling from years of armed conflict, political killings, and AIDS. Most of its population is under 18.
For Obbo, there is a connection between Uganda's one-party state and the growth of churches.
"A one-party state creates a vacuum and something will fill it. Either some demagogue, some church during Idi Amin's [dictator in the 1970s responsible for the deaths of 300,000 opponents] time it was football, it was sports, sports clubs became very big. And now we have a lot of what you see, what we call cultural fundamentalism," Obbo told ABCNEWS.com.
Obbo said that until the lives of the average Ugandan improved, they would continue to be attracted to churches.
"If you had political groups, if they were free, you'd have competition for people's attention and time. You'd have a lot of programs being sold to the people other than churches."
The government, for its part, is trying to intervene when churches begin behaving like extremist cults.
In August, a United Methodist Church was closed. Reportedly, officials took action after learning parishioners were pressured into abandoning medication and cosmetics to spend their days in all-day prayer vigils in darkened rooms. And some "born-again" churches have come under fire for holding "night prayers" for the same reason the potential for excess.
Bordered by Sudan to the north, Congo to the west, and Rwanda to the southwest, Uganda has a habit of making headlines as the kind of nation vaulting from one tragedy to another.
Perhaps the most recent spark for international attention was an outbreak of the Ebola virus last year.
It was in this uncertain climate that the Ten Commandments cult thrived and was able to convince people that the end of the world was imminent.
William Tayeebwa, a reporter who covered the story locally, says killings began when leaders panicked: Members sold their property and gave proceeds to the cult with the understanding that the apocalypse was nigh.
"Nineteen-ninety-nine ends and they did not see the end of the world. So then the people started agitating. 'Now what's happening? We are supposed to go to heaven, we are not going.' And then it was clear [to cult leaders] that these people were revolting and in order to bring down the revolt, these people had to arrange for the end of the world," Tayeebwa said.
Choosing the Right Path
Obbo breaks the religious spectrum in Uganda into three groups. The older, established churches, the independent churches and the alternative churches.
He says the established churches, like the Anglican and Catholic churches, have found themselves stuck in a rigid format, unable to compete with the smaller groups who are winning over their parishioners.
Even church leaders are jumping ship. Father Kataribabo, now on the run from authorities as the the second-in-command of the Ten Commandments cult, was a preacher in the Catholic Church and reportedly left when he failed to be promoted at a pace he found acceptable.
"In the west of Uganda, very few members of that church have been able to rise in the hierarchy of the church," says Obbo, "so dissidents from that movement, like Father Kataribabo, then go and say, 'there's nothing in this for us. If they cannot reward us, we must organize ourselves.'"
By contrast, independent and alternative churches can hardly find enough room to seat all their new members.
Kampala Pentecostal Church (KPC) and its Canadian preacher, for example, minister from a former theater on a prominent hill in the middle of the capital. Sundays it is packed to overflowing, the balcony filled and parishioners out back watching the service on television monitors.
But Obbo makes a distinction between KPC and other newer churches: KPC "targets middle class, successful, professionals. And it talks about how to make money, how to find yourself a nice husband, nice wife, how to have a happy time with your family, picnicking and things. So it's been able to combine it's almost got an ecumenical undertone to it. It's been able to speak to people's material concerns, the bottom line, so to speak. And it's also spoken to spiritual issues, in a very very modern sense.
"The Pentecostal Church has got its own thing, proper church, air conditioning. So it's in a different league than the rest, the majority of the other churches, which are very, very aggressive, which commit miracles: The Miracle Center, The Healing Center, The Victory Center these are very aggressive churches."
And the miracles being advertised are attractive: Speaking before a packed congregation at Redeemed of the Lord Evangelistic Church, one preacher says she was cured of AIDS when she was "born-again." Reverend Grace Kityo, from Faith Christian Churches, a sect of 50 churches he helped found, says, "I've seen people who have been with AIDS delivered by the Almighty power and now are free." He also claims he brought a boy back from the dead.
At Kataribabo's house, like many gated homes in Uganda, the walls of the perimeter fence are topped with broken glass. While the walls keep out unwanted scrutiny, the cults sweeping Uganda continue to entice vulnerable Ugandans with empty promises of a better life.
Erich Ogoso Opolot And David Musoke analyse the findings of a Makerere University study of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, the Ugandan cult that murdered over 1,000 of its members a year ago
A year ago, on March 17, 2000, Uganda became the site of the worst single incident of cult killings in world history.
Over 1,000 followers of the Movement for The Restoration of the Ten Commandments were found dead. Half of them died in a church that was set on fire; the bodies of the rest were found buried in mass graves all over the country on that day.
The Movement's leaders had predicted the end of the world on December 31, 1999. "Prior to this, darkness was to cover the world for three days from December 29. Once the world came to an end, only cult members gathered at their camp would be saved," says a new report compiled by researchers from Makerere University's Department of Religious Studies, who have spent the past year studying the genesis and growth of this deadly cult.
When 2000 came and none of these predictions came to pass, discontent rose among the members. Some realised they had been duped and started demanding the return of property they had surrendered to the church.
"A chaotic situation developed in the camp. The golden rule of silence was broken. All work stopped. Members became disloyal and started to mix freely with outsiders. Then the leaders told them that the Virgin Mary had reappeared to them and extended the date for the end of the world," the report reveals.
As the end of the world grew increasingly elusive, members were asked to go back to their homes, and told they would be informed when to return to be taken to heaven. Later, the leaders spread the word that the Virgin Mary had extended the date by two months, to March 17, 2000.
The leaders now started selling the followers' shops, clothes and domestic animals, reportedly "for a song."
The high priests also requested persistent complainants to put their grievances in writing. Those who submitted such written complaints would be called to a meeting in groups or individually. Most were never seen again; when members asked about them, they would be told that they had been transferred to the cult's other camps.
A week before the fateful day of March 17, members from the cult's other camps were brought to Kanungu and on the "doomsday," celebrations took place including a sumptuous meal- "a last supper."
March 17 began normally enough, with members trooping into the old church for morning prayers. However, they had been told that today they would be locked in and that the Virgin Mary would come personally, "clothed in flames" to take them to heaven. The pretext for locking them in was that only those inside would be delivered.
Only 17 year-old Peter Ahimbisibwe, who had left earlier to buy food, survived "Mary's flames," which engulfed the church, leaving an estimated 500 people dead. Later, more bodies were discovered underneath houses owned by the cult, garroted, mutilated and poisoned: 155 in Rugazi, Bushenyi on March 27; 153 in Rutooma, Rukungiri district, on March 25; 81 in Rushojwa, Rukungiri, on March 30 and 55 in Buziga, Kampala on April 27.
The Uganda government is yet to give an official explanation of the events that led to the cult deaths. A promised inquiry is yet to begin while police are still searching for cult members who escaped the inferno.
The Makerere report, published by the Marianum Press of Kisubi and written by Gerard Banura, Chris Tuhirirwe, and Joseph Begumanya - established that the cult's core leaders were Joseph Kibwetere, 68, Credonia Mwerinde, 48, and Fr Dominic Kataribabo, 64.
Kibwetere is regarded as the founder of the cult and was addressed as Omukuru w'entumwa (chief apostle/prophet). Born in Ruguma, in Kajara county in western Uganda, he was trained as a primary school teacher at St George's Teachers College, Ibanda. Later, he taught in various schools and was a headmaster and supervisor of Catholic schools in 1962. Later, he joined Uganda's civil service before retiring to pursue politics. He did not distinguish himself in the Democratic Party and later opted to run a bar in Kabale.
At one point, he is said to have developed a "mental problem" and claimed to have died and been resurrected. He was treated at Butabika Psychiatric Hospital.
"Joseph Kibwetere became very faithful to the Movement oath of silence. Whenever he was consulted, he would put his response in writing or use sign language. Most local people rarely saw him," say the researchers.
Mwerinde claimed to talk directly with the Virgin Mary and was the co- ordinator of all activities at the movement's camps. The researchers found that "nothing could be done without consulting her. She in turn would claim that she had to consult with the Virgin Mary. Her word was usually final and binding." Aptly, she was popularly referred to as the 'programmer."
Born in Kanungu in 1952, her father was a retired Catholic catechist. She dropped out of primary school after her family refused to support her education. Later she moved to Kanungu trading centre, where she reportedly "got involved with men" and had four children, of whom only two are still alive. She went on to own the "Independence Bar" in Kanungu.
Fr Dominic Kataribabo was one of the "bishops" administering sacraments, teaching, leading worship and related religious functions. Born in Bushenyi, Kataribabo was educated in Katabi and Katigondo seminaries and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1965. From 1974 to 1977, he studied history at Makerere University before proceeding to Loyola University, Mt Carmel, California, between 1985 and 1987, obtaining a master's degree in religious studies.
Before joining the cult, the "arrogant, introverted" prelate served as Rector at Katabi seminary and Diocesan Youth Chaplain in Mbarara.
While the cult traced its origins to Mwerinde and Kibwetere, its founder is probably Gauda Kamusha, who lived in Nyakishenyi, Rukungiri district. In the 1980s, she claimed that a rock formation at Nyabugoto caves had once been transformed into the Virgin Mary before her eyes, and that the vision had instructed her to preach repentance and win converts to Christianity.
It was her crusade that brought Mwerinde and Kibwetere to the camp in 1998. After visiting the caves, Kibwetere began attracting a following and developed a close relationship with Mwerinde.
In 1990, Kibwetere officially launched the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. At first, the cult was headquartered at his home in Ntungamo district, with 27 followers. Later, it was moved to Kakoba, Mbarara.
Against opposition from the mainstream Catholic church, the cult moved in 1993 to Kanungu, after Kibwetere visited Mwerinde's home and liked the area. Mwerinde's ailing father, Paul Kashaku, donated 10 acres of land to the cult.
The same year, it was registered as a religious NGO and was permitted by the Uganda government to carry out its activities throughout the country.
The cult was headquartered on a hillside on which stood a modern house for the leaders and two large dormitories for males and females respectively. There were two guest houses with receptions, kitchens, stores, a primary boarding school and an unfinished shrine. A cemetery, poultry project and dairy farm with 30 Friesian cows and fields of crops completed the set-up.
The site where the group settled was locally called Katate but the cult renamed it Ishayuuriro rya Maria, meaning "where Mary comes to the rescue of the spiritually stranded." There were branches in Rutoma, Rubirizi and Rugazi, Kyaka, Kabarole and Buziga, Kampala.
Women and children formed the bulk of the members but, contrary to reports that most were illiterate peasants, teachers, carpenters, masons, businessmen, ex-soldiers and former catechists were part of its laity. They also included not only Catholics but also Protestants, Muslims and others.
Members observed a strict code of conduct that forbade private ownership of property. Converts therefore surrendered all personal clothing and even academic qualifications to the cult.
Men and women were separated, except for Kibwetere and Mwerinde. Sexual intercourse between members, including married couples, was forbidden. A rigid timetable was followed with Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as days of fasting, which started with prayers called "The Way of the Cross" from 3am to 5am. From 5am to 7am, members would go back to sleep. Upon waking up, they would work till 1pm. followed by another prayer session until 2pm. Free time was 3pm to 4pm and thereafter, there would more work followed by supper at 8.00 pm and night prayers at 11pm.
On non-fasting days, the schedule was basically the same, but members had to clean the compound before breakfast. They also held a short prayer, the Angelus, from 12pm to 3pm. "Lunch was usually light and could be a piece of sugarcane or a cup of porridge. Supper was better qualitatively," says the study. Members were taught that light meals were part of sacrifice. But their leaders enjoyed lavish meals, which included meat, on a regular basis.
Members lived a life of prayer and meditation. Sunday was a 'Day of the Lord' when no work or activity was permitted. During the week, however, it was "like a labour camp," the researchers say.
Ordinary dress was prohibited. Members surrendered their clothes on entering the camp and were issued with uniforms black for recruits, green for those "who had seen the commandments" and green and white for "those who were ready to die in the ark."
The uniforms featured long-sleeved robes reaching the ankles. Women covered their heads with veils of matching colours. Each member wore their uniform at all times, their clothing having been sold or given away. They lived a life of "sacrifice, penance and mortification." They were discouraged from sleeping on beds or mattresses and had only the thinnest of blankets. They were not allowed to wear shoes or sandals- except, of course the leaders.
However, those who contributed more money lived in relatively better housing. The majority were poor and had to make do with mud and wattle huts.
Members observed the rule of absolute silence at all times. They communicated using signs and writing. Contact with outsiders was minimised and members were rarely allowed out of the camp. Visitors were restricted to a "visitors' zone."
In 1997, the cult started a primary school, which was officially opened by District Commissioner Kita Gawera. Later, education authorities closed it down due to poor sanitation, low academic standards and violation of children's rights. There were no health facilities at the Kanungu camp, which should have alerted the authorities to the fatalistic creed of the cult.
To join, children forked out Ush 5,000 ($2.7). For youths, it was Ush8,000 ($4.3) while adults paid Ush25,000 ($13.5). The cult also operated two shops, in Kanungu and Katojo towns.
The Movement kept aloof from the local people, few of whom joined it. However, it enjoyed good relations with local government officials. Some women members did domestic chores for the district commissioner at his house in Kanungu and members were generally law-abiding.
The cult's theology and teaching were based on messages the leaders claimed to receive on a regular basis from the Virgin Mary and Jesus. They emphasised the restoration of the Ten Commandments as God's guidelines to humanity and urged members to confess their sins in preparation for the end of the world on December 31, 1999.
The leaders wrote a sacred book -A Timely Message from Heaven, The End of the Present Times (1996), which detailed their philosophy. Members were told to read the book 20 times, after which they would receive anything they prayed for.
"During baptism, the candidate would be shaved everywhere and nails cut. Later the nails and hair would be burnt and the ashes dissolved in tea or water which the candidate would drink. Part of the ash was mixed with the anointing oils and smeared over the candidate's body, after which he or she was considered clean."
Members moved around with three rosaries -two worn around the neck, one facing the front and another the back. The third was carried around in the hand. At times, a fourth would be hidden under the garments.
Index Page: Ten Commandments of God: Tragedy in Uganda
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