Ugandan Death Toll at 330

The Associated Press, March 21, 2000
By Andrew England

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) - After several hundred members of a religious sect committed suicide in southwestern Uganda, psychiatrists and theologians blamed poverty, the AIDS epidemic and the country's Roman Catholic church for the rise of doomsday cults.

On Friday, hundreds of cult members burned to death inside a chapel on the sect's prosperous farm near Kanungu, 220 miles southwest of Kampala. Authorities are treating the deaths as a mass suicide, one of the largest in recent history.

Gerard Banura, a theologian at Makerere University, said church officials ostracized the leaders of the 10-year-old Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God - all former Catholics - when they disagreed with certain sections of the Mass.

"Somehow the official (Catholic) church made a mistake by isolating these people," Banura said.

The Rev. Joseph Nkeero, a church spokesman, said today the cult leaders were former priests who had been excommunicated from the church. "These people erred and broke the discipline of the church," Nkeero said. "Once they were out, they were out and they alienated themselves."

On Monday, a bulldozer began pushing the charred remains of several hundred members of the religious sect into a trench alongside the chapel. Burial was completed today, the grave unadorned with a cross and flowers.

Police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi said today that five additional investigators were being sentto Kanungu to "wrap up inquiries." Ten detectives were already there, Mugenyi said.

He also said authorities were seeking sect members who had not been killed in the fire.

"We have spoken to some people who left the sect one or two years ago, and we are using them to get important information. But we are treating them as witnesses, not suspects," he said.

Interior Minister Edward Rugumayo said Monday that police had counted 330 dead, including 78 children. Earlier reports had put the death toll as high as 600 and as low as 235. Rugumayo said the group kept meticulous records in a small office in the compound and had recorded the names of nearly 1,000 members.

But police at the scene said they were unable to separate many of the bodies, which were fused together by the intense heat from the fire.

The tragedy occurred as Uganda celebrates more than a decade of peace and growing prosperity - at least in urban areas - after years of anarchy and civil war.

Dr. Florence Baingana, head of the mental health division at the Ministry of Health, believes people who lived in the shadow of the dictatorial regime of Idi Amin are naturally vulnerable.

"Our history has made us more vulnerable because life was very hard," she said. "People have these gaps in their lives - spiritual gaps - and they look for different ways of filling them, like joining cults."

Several religious cults that grew out of Amin's brutal 1971-79 rule later turned into guerrilla movements, one headed by a woman named Alice Auma Lakwena.

The Kanungu cult was also headed by a woman, a 40-year-old former prostitute named Clendonia Mwerinde who claimed the Virgin Mary had appeared to her in a vision and told her and close colleagues not to follow mainstream Catholic religious ceremonies.

Police first claimed that Mwerinde and other cult leaders died in the church fire. But Rugumayo said only two bodies had been identified - one of the farm manager and the other described as that of a priest.

Banura said three of the male leaders were suspended from the church in the early 1990s because they opposed receiving communion while standing, preferring instead to be on their knees.

Roman Catholicism, established in Uganda in the late 19th century, was the country's first Christian denomination.

The Rev. Grace Kaiso, secretary-general of the Uganda Joint Christian Council, said the combination of widespread AIDS, rapid urbanization, poverty and the growing popularity of nontraditional Christian churches served as a backdrop to the tragedy at Kanungu.

"People are leaving their rural areas and losing their local network, which takes care of them," he said. "AIDS has meant people have fewer opportunities of support as relatives and friends die. The fact that so many people have died has also given rise to the belief that the end of the world is near. They see all these bad things and think, 'Why invest in the future.'

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