Twenty five members of a cult that forbids its members to eat cooked foods were recently arrested in Uganda for trespassing on privately held land, according to this article in the New Vision (“Uganda’s leading website”); a similar group was arrested last summer and sentenced to a year in prison. Uganda has been cracking down on cults since 2000, the article concludes, when 500 members of a cult based in Kanungu commit suicide.
The death count was actually much higher–possibly more than 1000. And they weren’t suicides, but murders. The victims were members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a Mariolatrous doomsday cult led by a former Catholic school administrator named Joseph Kibwetere and Dominic Kataribaabo, an excommunicated priest. In the early 1990s, they merged their group with one run by a seeress and ex-prostitute named Keledonia Mwerinde, who also received visions from Mary and Jesus; in 1997, they claimed to have 4500 followers. Members sold their possessions and donated the proceeds to the church. While they awaited the apocalypse–which was predicted for midnight, December 31, 2000–they lived in compounds, wore uniforms, worked twelve hour days in the sugar fields, and fasted two days a week. Sex was forbidden, as was speech–members communicated with each other in sign language. The cult’s scripture, A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times, which records the leaders’ visions, was studied carefully. When Doomsday didn’t arrive on schedule, church members grew restive; some demanded their property back. On March 17, 2000, more than 500 members–men, women, and children–were killed when they were locked into a church that was set on fire; in the weeks that followed, a number of mass graves were uncovered. Here is a story from the April 1, 2000 Newsweek.
Warrants were issued for the top leadership of the church but they were never located; some concluded that Mwerinde had murdered Kibwetere and Katariabaabo and fled with her family and the church’s fortune. Kibwetere’s wife later told authorities that he had died well before the fire, in 1999.
A New York Times article from March 19, 2000 provides an essential piece of context that helps explain why the Movement’s millenarian message found so many receptive ears: “The church is 25 miles north of Rwanda, where 800,000 people were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide, and 10 miles from Congo, where armies of six African nations have been drawn into a civil war.” Some 5.4 million people were killed in that war; Uganda, of course, endured Idi Amin’s bloody regime until 1979.