(CNN, March 20, 2000)
KANUNGU, Uganda -- Authorities in Uganda are moving to shut down the remainder of a religious cult blamed for the fiery weekend deaths of more than 300 people, while the search continues for more bodies in the charred ruins of the group's compound.
Stephen Okwalinga, regional police commander, said a pathologist put the death toll at 330, including 78 children. The motive behind the group's self-immolation was unclear, although members had been guided by doomsday prophecies in the past.
The victims, members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, died Friday when they apparently gathered at the church, singing and chanting, then set fire to the building.
Convicts buried the charred remains in a mass grave on Monday, but investigators found the bodies of five more people in a communal latrine.
'We can't stop freedom of worship'
The cult had about 1,000 members nationwide and was registered as a nongovernmental organization (NGO).
"There are still sect members out in other districts, and they are being pursued," Interior Minister Edward Rugumayo said. "We're going to close down all the branches of this sect and are going to be more vigilant about NGO registration in the future. But we can't stop freedom of worship.."
Ugandan President Yoweri Museweni said in a written statement, the government "believes in the freedom of worship. It also has a duty to protect the lives of the people of Uganda... and to ensure that Ugandans are not at the mercy of some dangerous and opportunistic individuals who parade themselves as religious leaders."
The government moves appear to have the support of many local residents.
"I think the government has been saying that we have a right of worship -- that's what the constitution says, is freedom of worship," villager Godfrey Mbabazi said. "But then they say that the government has to protect the lives of people."
'It is just murder'
Outside the ruined church in Kanungu, in remote southwestern Uganda, investigators found several other corpses. Some were buried under fresh concrete in pit latrines.
"We found five bodies on the surface, and when we shone a torch there were more underneath," said public health officer Richard Opira. "They haven't been wounded, so we think they were strangled or maybe pois"
The scene was reminiscent of the largest mass suicide in recent history -- the deaths of 914 from the U.S.-based People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.
Local residents said the Ugandan cult's members feasted on roast bull and soda last week, then went around to area villages bidding farewell to neighbors. They were seen filing into the church on Friday and were heard singing and chanting through the walls.
The fire was fueled by gasoline and paraffin, and the doors and windows were nailed shut from the inside.
Group considered hard-working
Ugandan officials said the cult was founded by Cledonia Mwerinde, a 40-year-old former prostitute, and 68-year-old Joseph Kibweteere, a former Roman Catholic priest known as "The Prophet." Authorities believe both died in the blaze, along with three other leaders.
Kibweteere claimed to have tape-recorded a conversation in the late 1980s between Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary in which Mary supposedly said the world would be destroyed because its people were not adhering to the Ten Commandments.
Little is known about the cult's teachings. Members were encouraged to communicate with gestures when not singing or praying, and sex was banned.
Friday's mass deaths appeared to result from Kibweteere's prediction that the world would end on December 31, 1999 -- revised to December 31, 2000, when the earlier date passed without event.
Rugumayo said the group's followers were considered loyal and hard-working. Leaders were scheduled to have lunch with local officials on Saturday. The group operated a school for a time, housing about 300 students, but authorities closed it in 1988 for failing to meet food and housing standards.
("Sunday Vision" [Kampala], March 20, 2000)
In May 1999, as doomsday cults the world over prepared for the new millennium, Sunday Visions Matthias Mugisha visited the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments cult at Kamungu, Rukungiri. This is a reproduction of the story we first published last year.
THE world ends next year. There is no time to waste, Emmanuel Twinomujuni says when asked why he is no longer in school.
Twinomujuni, 19, like his colleagues in the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments cult, moves about penniless, looks poverty-stricken and leads a life of hard labour and prayer.
Some of our leaders talk directly to God. Any minute from now when the end comes, every believer who will be at a yet undisclosed spot will be saved.
Twinomujuni says the spot is known only by the cult leaders who talk to God..
The cults headquarters, called Ishayuriro rya Maria (Rescue place for the Virgin Mary), is believed to be the Holy Land. It is located in Kanungu in Rukungiri district.
Its leader is a former Democratic Party (DP) activist in the area, Joseph Kibwetere. He and his assistants had gone to preach when Sunday Vision visited the holy land.
Jerimaya Kabateriene, a trained teacher, says, This is not a religious sect. It is a movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments have been distorted. We are putting them right, he continued. He said the movement was founded around 1987 when one night, an elderly former Catholic church catechist, the late Paul Kashaku, had a vision. He saw Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph.
The trio sent the old man on a mission to make people repent. By an inexplicable coincidence, many people started getting such visions and later came together to write a book.
Okuwhaho Kwobusinge Obu (The End of This Generation), became the foundation on which the movement is based. The book has sixteen chapters, including several doctrines which are opposed to the teaching of the Catholic Church.
According to the list in the book, 28 copies of it were sent to various personalities and institutions, including the Pope, President Museveni, and the Editor, of The New Vision.
Kabateriene says the movement has hundreds of members throughout the world.
The Catholic Church does not want us, he said, adding that it is because the movement challenges the Church for ignoring some of the commandments. He did not say which commandments are being ignored.
Fr. Christopher Businge of Makiro Parish, located a few kilometers from Ishayuriro rya Maria, says Canon Law (the law that governs the church) No. 1374 states that, ...one who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty: One who promotes or moderates such an association however is to be punished with interdiction.
Though the movement includes people from various beliefs, the majority are Catholics including two priests, Fr. Dominic Kataribaho and Joseph Kasapurari.
A former member, Fr. Paul Ikaze, has since returned to the Catholic Church.
Cult members rarely talk, choosing their few words carefully for fear of breaking commandment No. 8, Thou shalt not lie.
The question of selling property is clarified in their book. If it is time to collect money, those who have should pay, those without, should sell part of their property and those with a calling abandon the earthly life to go and preach like the twelve apostles of Jesus.
In spite of its belief that the end is near, the movement opened a primary boarding school. However, it was indefinitely closed by Rukungiri District Administration in November 1998 for engaging in acts that violated the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, the Local Government Act and the Public Health regulations.
Sunday Vision saw the letter ordering the closure of the school, which was signed by the Chief Administrative Officer Rukungiri District, Frank Ntaho to the leader of the movement. While further investigations to bring you to book are still going on, the District Council has decided to stop your operation as a school with immediate effect.
The children are only given porridge for lunch, they sleep on the bare floor without blankets and mattresses, look malnourished and are subjected to child labour while some are staying with you without their parents knowledge, the letter added.
But Kabateriene, who taught at the school, blamed the closure on doctored photographs.
A cameraman came with school inspectors and manipulated his machine to show our toilets full while in fact they were half full. Otherwise we have the best classroom blocks in the area, he said.
The District Education Officer, Zabuloni Bakeiha, said part of the schools curriculum was not acceptable to Ugandas education system. Education does not prepare for the end of the world, he said.
(Uganda Newsline, March 20, 2000)
"Leave me alone, I want to go with them," shouted Justine Rushenya as a soldier prevented her entering the building.
The middle-aged Rushenya later said she had lost 13 family members in the mass suicide, including her mother and father and several brothers and sisters.
"I have lost all these people and I don't know how we will recover," she kept repeating.
"We are trying to keep the area clear for health reasons," said local administrator Rutenda Didas. "We hope they will come to start clearing it tomorrow."
In a nearby dormitory, chicken bones and millet bread bore witness to the last party the cult members enjoyed.
Local officials said the cultists had slaughtered a cow and ordered 70 crates of soda the night before taking their lives.
The only official estimate of the death toll is based on the cult's registered membership last year - about 235 - although police know that later converts may also have died.
Local people say there are about 400 cult members not accounted for.
"We know the camp had many more occupants than usual," local army commander Steven Mujuni said. "Some who lived in other places had gathered there but we do not know how many."
The exact number of dead may never be established, he said.
Cult members sold off their possessions, dressed up in their finest white, green and black robes, gathered in the church and nailed the doors and windows shut.
They sang and chanted for hours, before dousing themselves in fuel and setting their church on fire in what is believed to be the second biggest mass suicide of recent world history.
"All along they had said that this (the church) is the boat of Noah," said Florence, a local villager. "This is the ark and they were told that at the time of calamity they would come here.
"They were told that at a certain time this year the world would end and so the leaders made it happen and perhaps the people there believed it had happened," she said.
Local people say they have no information on the fate of Kibwetere, a middle-aged man who founded the sect about a decade ago.
The Ugandan newspaper New Vision said he was last seen in hospital in neighbouring Kenya suffering from heart problems.
Nor do they know whether three excommunicated Roman Catholic priests - Dominic Kataribabo, Gredeina Mwerindi and John Kamagara - or two excommunicated nuns, all leading figures in the cult, died in the blaze.
Ugandan newspapers said the cult had been under investigation by local authorities since 1998 for mistreating and possibly kidnapping children, after a primary school they were running with 300 children was closed down.
In September, police in central Uganda disbanded another Doomsday cult, the 1 000-member World Message Last Warning sect. The leaders were charged with rape, kidnapping and illegal confinement.
The largest mass suicide of recent times took place in 1978 when a paranoid US pastor, the Reverend Jim Jones, led 914 followers to their deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink.
("News 24" [South Africa], March 20, 2000)
Kampala - Self-styled prophet Joseph Kibwetere, the leader of the Ugandan cult whose followers committed mass suicide last week, had written to his wife informing her of the intended action, his son said.
The son of 68-year-old Kibwetere, named only as Rugambwe, told Monday's issue of the state-owned New Vision newspaper that his father wrote to his mother last Thursday exhorting her to carry on with her faith "because the members of the cult were going to perish the next day".
Kibwetere also sent a suitcase full of prayer and hymn books to his wife.
Rugambwe added that his father and two defrocked Roman Catholic priests who were his principal aides travelled to the headquarters of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God cult on 14 March to join their followers.
"We had last heard of him in 1997 when he sent a condolence message at the funeral of our brother Bennett. Since then he had never communicated. He did not even send condolence messages when we lost two sisters in the same week in June 1999. We started believing rumours that he had died long ago," said Rugambwe in an interview with New Vision.
He added that his mother had sent him to the scene where more than 235 of Kibwetere's followers perished, to pick a handful of ashes, which would be used at a symbolic funeral for the cult leader, to be held on Sunday at his home in Kabumba, western Uganda.
Local people told an AFP reporter who visited the scene of the mass suicide near Kanungu, about 320km south-west of the Ugandan capital, that they believed Kibwetere had died with his followers.
Inspector General of Police John Kisembo also told AFP that it looked as though the leaders could be among those burnt to death.
There was speculation that the body of one of the dead, which lay near the burnt out church-door was Kibwetere's or that of one of the other leaders.
It was also charred black, but retained the human shape. A scorched clerical collar stuck to the neck.
Near the body were the remains of small plastic containers, which security officials believed carried fuel used to light the fire.
The exact number of those who died, and their identities, is still unknown.
Kisembo said that police had obtained a list of cult members, but had yet to establish if all had been inside the church when it went up in flames.
Four policemen, who were members of the sect, are known to have died in the inferno. A number of children and babies are known to be among the dead.
Internal Affairs Minister Edward Rugamayo flew to the scene on Monday to assess the situation.
(Panafrican News Agency, March 20, 2000)
KAMPALA, Uganda (PANA) - Ugandans have reacted with shock and horror at the mass suicide in a makeshift church in Kanungu in the country's western border district of Rukungiri Friday, in which over 500 people are now believed to have perished.
"The President (Yoweri Museveni) is very shocked... It's unbelievable for such a thing to take place in Africa. I've only heard them in Japan and the USA..." presidential press spokesperson, Hope Kivengere, said Sunday night.
Members of the 'Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments' sect doused themselves Friday with petrol and paraffin before setting themselves ablaze in the church.
State-owned Uganda Television, in its news cast Sunday, night, showed horrific scenes of body upon body lying on top of one another.
The bodies were charred beyond recognition. The suicide is perhaps the second biggest cult killing in the world after the 18 November 1978 death of 912 members of the People's Temple sect in the jungle of Guyan in a ceremony of collective suicide and murder.
"President Museveni has condemned in the strongest terms this horrific, senseless and tragic act and was deeply saddened to learn that the adults who carried out the barbarity had taken children with them and subjected them to such cruelty" Kivengere said.
Police spokesman, Asuman Mugenyi, who returned from the scene Sunday evening estimated the death toll to be between 400 and 500 people or even more.
"The number up to now still remains a puzzle... The people to do the physical count and examination of bodies and other items on the scene are the forensic personnel. Estimates earlier registered 235 but it may double that.. The bodies are piled on top of each other," he said.
The cult is led by self-styled prophet Joseph Kibwetere and ex-Roman catholic priests, Rev.-Fr Dominic Kataribabo, Gredeina Mwerinde and John Kamagara.
It is not clear whether the leaders took part in the suicide.
Reports say those burnt had come from about eight districts of Kampala, Rukungiri, Kabarole, Bushenyi, Kasese, Ntungamo, Rakai and Kabale.
It is reported that the believers had been planning for the Doomsday for some time.
They expected the world to come to an end 31 December 1999, but when this did not happen they planned their own end.
At the church, a feast was held where more than 70 crates of soda (soft drinks) were consumed. Bulls were also slaughtered for what the believers termed last super.
After their meal, the believers properly sealed the church from inside and outside leaving only one entrance which was also sealed before the church was set ablaze.
A woman identified as Jane Barisigara from Kabale is said to have died with five of her children, the youngest being eight years.
Another woman is said to have died with her twins while a man also from Kabale with three sons.
State minister for foreign affairs, Amama Mbabazi, who hails from the area expressed shock at the tragedy.
"It is an unfortunate situation. I think it calls on the state to review the issue of cults and see what measures to protect the ordinary people," he said.
The cult was registered as a non-governmental organisation in 1997 but reports say the leaders started preaching and recruitment of membership as far back as 1994.
(BBC, March 20, 2000)
The charred remains of more than 330 bodies, including 78 children, have been counted by police after a mass suicide in a church in Uganda on Friday.
"We're going to close down all the branches of this sect and are going to be more vigilant ... But we can't stop freedom of worship." (Interior Minister Edward Rugamayo)
The authorities say they have also found the bodies of five people murdered in a pit latrine in the compound of the cult's church in Kanungu in the south-west of the country.
Members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments died on Friday when they were doused in petrol before their church burned down. The windows and doors had been nailed shut.
Ugandan Interior Minister Edward Rugamayo, who visited the remains of the cult headquarters on Monday, said there could be more than 500 dead, as many other bodies "were burnt beyond recognition".
Prisoners have begun the task of burying the bodies in a mass grave.
It has also emerged that four police officers were among those burned to death.
"These are the very people we expect to warn us about these kind of dangers," said Mr Rugumayo.
President Yoweri Museveni has expressed his deep shock and urged religious and community leaders to guide people away from cults.
The authorities have announced that all branches of the cult would be closed down.
Crackdown President Museveni said although his government believed in the freedom of worship, it also had a duty to protect people from "dangerous" religious leaders.
"The president was actually angered to learn that the adults who carried out what he called 'this barbarity' had taken children with them and subjected them to this cruelty," his spokeswoman said.
Mr Museveni "criticised the leaders of some religious cults, which are increasingly luring unsuspecting people, taking advantage of their property and misleading them into beliefs that endanger their lives," Ugandan radio said.
Police said the adults who died would be treated as suicide victims, but those under 18 would be regarded as murder victims.
Most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, reduced to husks piled one on top of another and fused together by the heat.
Identification will be almost impossible and it is unlikely an exact death toll will ever be reached.
Police said rescuers who arrived at the scene had been unable to reach the cult members, as the doors and windows were barred.
End of the world Inspector General John Kisembo said all the evidence pointed to a mass suicide.
"We know that the leaders of the church must have planned it." Witnesses said there were signs that the cult was getting ready for a big event in the days leading up to the fire.
Religious icons were found around the movement's compound One report said the group's leader, the charismatic former opposition politician Joseph Kibwetere, told his followers to sell their possessions and prepare to go to heaven.
It was not known whether Mr Kibwetere and other leaders, including several excommunicated Catholic priests and nuns, died with their followers.
Mr Kibwetere's son is reported to have visited the scene to pick up ashes for a symbolic funeral. He is quoted as saying that he believes his father was among the dead.
Evidence of the cult's Roman Catholic roots lay scattered around the compound.
Three statues of Jesus stood in the abandoned offices, while a large crucifix had been laid carefully on green cloth draped across a chair.
(Reuters, March 20, 2000)
KANUNGA, Uganda (Reuters) - Barefoot prisoners began the gruesome task Monday of burying the charred corpses of up to 500 members of a Ugandan Doomsday cult.
Each carrying a new spade, dozens of men marched to the site to shovel the bodies into a mass grave along the side of the church, on a peaceful green hillside, where the cult members set themselves ablaze three days earlier.
Before the burial, about 100 relatives of the dead filed past to peer through windows at the pile of bodies, some of them tiny children curled together or lying with arms outstretched.
Some relatives wept softly, holding sprigs of rosemary to their noses.
Across the compound that was home to followers of the ``Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments,'' police made another macabre discovery.
Breaking through a layer of fresh cement, they shone torches to reveal at least 20 bodies in the dank cavern beneath. More were found in the sect's neat vegetable and herb garden.
``It is horror. It is just murder and horror,'' said Faustine Tirenderana, an elderly farmer who had walked over a sugar-cane covered hill to see what had happened to his neighbors.
He said the quiet, simple-living people had become restless in recent months. Cult leaders, who demanded their followers communicate only in gestures, had foretold that the world would end last New Year's Eve, at the dawn of the new millennium.
When it did not, followers began to question their leaders, who included excommunicated priests and nuns. Some members even demanded back the money and possessions they had given to the leaders when they joined the cult.
So the leaders extended the deadline for Armageddon and ``made sure that it happened,'' Tirenderana said.
While the prayer room blaze -- fueled by gasoline and paraffin -- initially looked like a mass ritual suicide, many of the victims may not have been complicit, he said.
``For suicide I would have thought that all of them agreed, so it can't be called that. It should be called murder, especially for the children. They were innocent.''
It was not known whether the cult's founder, charismatic former political activist Joseph Kibwetere, was among the dead.
Local people in the impoverished farming region said Kibwetere had grown rich at the expense of his brainwashed followers.
A Catholic nun, Stella Maris, who had come to pray at the site, wept into her handkerchief as she walked through the dismal dormitories, adorned only with plastic crucifixes, where more than 400 people slept together on stone floors.
``Look, they had nothing,'' she said. ``This is not the way of God.''
by Rosalind Russell (Reuters, March 20, 2000)
KANUNGU, Uganda (Reuters) - Ugandan police said on Monday at least some of the Doomsday Cult members who perished in a horrific blaze were victims of murder, and local villagers blamed cult leaders for the tragedy.
More than 200 Christian cult members burned to death after setting fire to their church in the southwestern village of Kanungu on Friday morning, but police said some were far too young to be considered willing participants in mass suicide.
``We are treating it as both murder and suicide because there were children involved,'' police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi told Reuters.
The blackened, charred bodies of at least 200 people still lay in the burned out shell of the church on Monday, some with imploring arms outstretched, others with their heads thrown back as if gasping for air.
The corpses of at least 11 children and probably many more lay among them, and the body of one baby was curled up like a fetus on the ground.
The blaze was a chilling reminder of the largest mass suicide of recent times -- the Jonestown tragedy in 1978.
A paranoid U.S. pastor, the Reverend Jim Jones, led 914 followers to their deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink.
Police in Uganda have estimated a death toll of 235, based on records of registered cult members. Locals said there were at least 400 people from the community who were unaccounted for.
President Yoweri Museveni expressed deep shock.
Ugandan radio, monitored by the BBC, said Museveni ''condemned in the strongest terms this horrific, senseless and tragic act, and was deeply saddened to learn that the adults who carried out the barbarity had taken children with them and subjected them to such cruelty.''
PLANNED BY CULT LEADERS
Residents of this small farming settlement said they believed the deaths were orchestrated by just a few people.
``It was planned by their leaders. I don't think all those people could have planned to die,'' said Rutenda Didas, a local administrator. ``All of the windows were nailed from the outside. The planners did not want those inside to run away.'' The leaders of the ``Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God'' told their followers that Doomsday would come in the Millennium Year and they should gather together to be saved and delivered to heaven.
``All along they had said that (the prayer house) is the boat of Noah, this is the ark and at the time of calamity they would come here,'' said Florence, a shopkeeper in Kanungu. But few knew they would be doused in petrol and set ablaze, she said.
It was not known whether the cult's leaders, who included a charismatic former opposition politician Joseph Kibwetere and several ex-communicated Catholic priests and nuns, were among those who died in the fire.
Kibwetere formed the movement in 1987 when he said he heard a conversation between the Virgin Mary and Jesus which he recorded on a cassette tape.
``There is a lady's voice on the tape which says the world is suffering because the people are not following the ten commandments,'' said Sister Stella Maris, a Catholic nun living near Kanungu. ``She says the commandments must be enforced or the world will end.''
The recording formed the basis of the beliefs of the sect's followers who were told to live strictly by the commandments and communicate with each other only in gestures unless they were praying or singing.
The community's compound of rough cement and iron roofed buildings set on a gentle green hillside, expanded over the years to accommodate more than 400 followers who wore a uniform of black, white and green robes and rarely mixed with the local community except to sell their homemade crafts.
Ten Commandments of God: Mass Suicide in Uganda
CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors.
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