KAMPALA, Uganda -- The death toll from a church fire in Uganda believed to be a mass suicide of parishioners had reached at least 500, officials said today as they prepared for a mass burial of the charred and disfigured bodies.
Four days after the fire at the church compound belonging to the Christian sect Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, police said they had counted 500 bodies.
"It may be a total of 600," said police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi, adding that burial in a mass grave would begin today.
Earlier reports had put the number of victims at between 235 and 470.
Police said all five leaders of the sect, four of them former Roman Catholic priests or lay workers, had died in the Friday morning blaze just outside Kanungu trading center, 220 miles southwest of Kampala.
Mugenyi identified the leaders as Cledonia Mwerinde, 40, a former prostitute who built the group's compound on the farm of her late father; Joseph Kibweteere, 68, a former Roman Catholic priest in Kabale diocese north of Kanungu; and Dominic Kataribabo, 32, Joseph Kasapurari, 39, and John Kamagara, 69 -- all reported to be former priests.
Mugenyi said the identification of the alleged leaders was not based on forensic evidence but on "comments from local people" who told police the five had been inside the building -- said to have been sealed from the inside before the fire began.
Syncretic Christian religious sects are mushrooming across Africa as many people become disillusioned with the inability of politicians to improve their lives.
The Kanungu sect has branches in several other parts of Uganda, and its members used only gestures to communicate, reportedly for fear of breaking commandments. But they do sing and pray aloud. In the wake of the disaster, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni today warned the nation's religious leaders against those who might endanger the lives of the unsuspecting.
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," a statement from Museveni's office said.
Following the deadly blaze, rural people who lived near the compound told police and reporters that members had told them about a sighting of the Virgin Mary and that something big was going to happen. Kibweteere had reportedly predicted the end of the world on Dec. 31. When that didn't happen, he moved the date up to Dec. 31, 2000.
Last week, sect members feasted on roast bull and soda after selling their possessions and telling friends goodbye, local residents told reporters. Tumwesigye Kajungu, a former schoolteacher who refused to join the sect, said his wife and six children perished in the blaze.
"I last saw my wife on March 8. She told me something was going to happen on the 15th. And if nothing happened, then she would see me again," he said. Dr. Florence Baingana, a psychiatrist in charge of the mental health division in the Ministry of Health, said fears about what would happen in the year 2000 and grinding poverty had fueled the religious sect movement in Uganda.
"People have these gaps in their lives, spiritual gaps, and they look for different ways of filling them like joining cults. Our history has made us more vulnerable because life has been very hard," she said. There were conflicting reports of when the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was established. Some say it was 1989, others 1994.
Mugenyi said police wanted to close down the Kanungu compound last September but said the fact that police officers were members of the cult made it more difficult to close it down. He said that four current and two former officers died in the fire.
Police were looking for any adult members of the sect who may have survived the fire, Mugenyi said, adding that they would be charged with murder if caught "because they brought innocent children into the church."
In a separate case in the mid-1980s, when Uganda was emerging from 15 years of bloody civil war, a woman calling herself a spirit medium said she could lead a guerrilla army through battle unscathed. Alice Auma Lakwena told members of her Holy Spirit Movement they would be protected from bullets by rubbing themselves with oil pressed from shea nuts.
In 1987, she sought refuge in neighboring Kenya. Her cousin, Joseph Kony, took up the insurgency and called it the Lord's Resistance Army and said it was based on the Ten Commandments. The LRA is believed responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people in northern Uganda and the abduction of children and youths.