Uganda's Faithful Dead

  • Share
  • Read Later
All that remains of the mud-and-concrete church building that nestled on the side of a pretty, eucalyptus-studded hill near the town of Kanungu, in southwestern Uganda, is a few sheets of corrugated tin that twist and snap in the wind. More than a week after leaders of an obscure indigenous Christian cult led, or perhaps forced, their followers into the building, poured gasoline around and then set, or had their followers set, fire to the place, the site has become a macabre graveyard. Police bulldozed the building and its grisly contents--at least 330, and perhaps as many as 550, charred corpses--into a trench dug by prisoners, burying the physical evidence but not erasing the horror of one of Uganda's worst atrocities. "What most disturbs me is the children who died," says Gervis Muteguya, who lost five relatives in the fire. "Children are innocent. They had no choice in this."

Ugandan police agree and are treating the deaths as murder. Late last week two mass graves in a compound belonging to the cult 31 miles from the church in Kanungu yielded at least 150 more bodies, including 60 children and mostly women who had been strangled and hacked to death. Officials were still trying to determine whether cult leader Joseph Kibwetere, 68, died in the blaze or escaped. The onetime devout Roman Catholic teacher helped create the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God sect 10 years ago, after claiming he had been told by the Virgin Mary that the world would soon end. In the mid-1990s, he established a base in remote Kanungu. Using money provided by followers, who commonly sold their homes and possessions upon joining, and funds from groups and individuals overseas, Kibwetere built a small complex of houses, offices and a school. He recruited followers from nearby rural districts and from as far away as the capital, Kampala.

Among them were Muteguya's mother, sister, brother, sister-in-law and niece. "I tried to stop them, but it was impossible," says Muteguya, surveying the long red-earth mound where they lie buried. "They were indoctrinated in a manner that if you tried to argue with them, they kept quiet. You ended up talking around like a mad person." Muteguya did manage to stop his relatives from selling the small family farm and late last year tried again to persuade his 16-year-old sister to leave the sect. "She came home to the village a few times, and I think she had given up because my mother had been transferred to a different place. But they knew our home, and they would come and take her by force." That was around the time Kibwetere announced that the world would end on Dec. 31. When it didn't, he apparently set a new date and urged his devotees to sell whatever possessions they had left. Locals said the cult held a party at which 70 crates of soft drinks and three bulls were consumed. Two days later, they were dead.

The tragedy has focused attention on the rise of fringe Christian groups in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. Christianity is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else on earth. At current growth rates, in the next decade the number of African Christians will exceed the number of European believers: perhaps 520 million, in contrast to 470 million. This would leave African Christians second only to Christians in Latin America, who number around 700 million. Most of the tremendous growth is coming not in such historic mainstream denominations as Anglican and Roman Catholic but in newer, livelier, indigenous churches. "People find the old churches a bit slow," says Winfred Muthoni, an assistant in a popular Christian bookshop in Nairobi, Kenya. "People want to get excited for God. They want to feel free to worship."

The new churches use local languages and mix traditional African spiritual beliefs with Pentecostal-style worship, including the use of drums, guitars and charismatic preachers. They also address local problems--poverty, drought, corruption--and offer a sense of belonging that is rare in a continent whose politicians so often fail their people and where traditional social structures are coming apart.

But while the new African churches may attract growing numbers of followers, mainstream churches question the depth of faith in the converted, as well as the commitment of the new churches to their flock. Like the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments sect, many of the new churches are built around charismatic and exploitative leaders and often fade once those leaders leave or die.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2