Uganda: Religion That Kills

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 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.

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