At least 235 dead in Uganda cult fire

Members killed when doomsday sect’s church set ablaze

Reuters, March 18, 2000

KAMPALA, Uganda, March 18— Excommunicated priests and nuns foretelling the end of the world led a mass suicide in which at least 235 people perished by fire, according to police investigating a Millennium Year tragedy in southwestern Uganda.

"I think it calls on the state to review the issue of cults and see what measures to take to protect the ordinary people from cult leaders," Amama Mbabazi, Ugandan minister of state for foreign affairs Male And female believers sold their belongings; donned white, green and black robes; and brought their children into the church of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in the remote little town on Kanungu.

With doors locked and windows boarded shut from breakfast time Friday, they sang and chanted for several hours, then set the church on fire.

"People said they heard some screaming, but it was all over very quickly," police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi, just back from the scene, said in Mbarara, the provincial capital.

Forensic experts will sift through the remains Sunday, tallying what is believed to be the world second-biggest mass suicide of recent history.

Kanungu, 200 miles southwest of Kampala, the capital, is tucked down in the southwest corner of Uganda, a country dictator Idi Amin once made a byword for African horrors.

Just to the east lies the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where armies of six African states have been sucked into a messy civil war. Just south is Rwanda, where 800,000 people were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide.

Struggle To Contain Cults

Struggling to contain the spread of cults, Ugandan authorities asked all religious sects last year to register their members locally.

Mugenyi said all 235 registered members of the sect had probably perished in the fire, and probably some unregistered new arrivals as well.

The corpses, many burned beyond recognition, were left overnight where they were found.

Cult leaders, who included three excommunicated priests and two excommunicated nuns, taught that the world would end in 2000.

Prior to this incident, their leader told believers to sell off their possessions and prepare to go to Heaven, Mugenyi said, adding that the police were treating the incident as both suicide and murder because children were involved.

"Definitely it is both, because there were a big number of children who were led there by their parents," he said.

In September, police in central Uganda disbanded another Doomsday cult, the 1,000-member World Message Last Warning sect. The leaders were charged with rape, kidnapping and illegal confinement.

Precedents For Incident

There is a history of fanatical religious movements in the country.

An extreme and violent Christian cult, the Holy Spirit Movement, sprang up in poor northern Uganda in the late 1980s. Many hundreds of believers died in suicidal attacks, convinced that magic oil would protect them from the bullets of government troops.

Its successor, the Lord’s Resistance Army, is still pursuing a guerrilla war. It claims that it wants to rule the country on the basis of the Biblical Ten Commandments, yet it has kidnapped thousands of boys and girls to serve as soldiers and sex slaves, and it frequently commits atrocities against local people.

The largest mass suicide of recent times took place in 1978, when a paranoid U.S. pastor, the Rev. Jim Jones, led 914 followers to their deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink.

Cult members who refused to swallow the liquid were shot. Jones had carved a sign over his altar at Jonestown reading,“ Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

In recent years, there have been several smaller group suicides in Europe and North America, three of them involving the Solar Temple, an international sect that believes death by ritual suicide leads to rebirth.

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