Uganda: Religion That Kills

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.

Churches Galore

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

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."

An Intervention

The government, for its part, is trying to intervene when churches begin behaving like extremist cults.

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