Uganda cultist called followers to prayers before fire

Reuters, April 1, 2000
By Adrian Blomfield

FORT PORTAL, Uganda, April 1, 2000 (Reuters) - Uganda Christian Doomsday cult leader Joseph Kibwetere told followers to come and see Jesus at Kanungu, days before the fire there in which around 500 members died, a villager said on Saturday.

Aida Kaguza told reporters that her neighbour John Katebalirwe, a prominent cult member, told her that Kibwetere had written to all leaders urging the faithful to go to Kanungu, the sect's headquarters in southwestern Uganda.

"When they were leaving we tried to ask where they were going and they said they were going to pray at Kanungu," said Kaguza of Sweswe village near Fort Portal, about 100 km (60 miles) west of the capital Kampala.

"They had been called by a letter that their leader (Kibwetere) had received a vision from God that they would go and see Jesus," she said, adding:

"I don't know if those who went from here were burned or murdered. All I know is that they have not come back."

As police searched on Saturday for more victims of the sect, a local police official said three of its leaders had been briefly detained in 1998 for promoting "poverty."

Members Told To Sell Belongings

"They were telling people to sell their property and possessions. They looked to be poor and humble because they didn't carry any belongings. They only carried the Bible," said the official who declined to be named.

He was speaking as one of several police teams involved in the investigation searched Katebalirwe's home.

The police had been helped in their search of various mass-grave sites by prisoners working bare-foot and by hired labourers. On Saturday, however, Commissioner of Prisons Joseph Etima was quoted as saying that the prisoners were being stood down until they could be provided with protective clothing.

The Ugandan government says evidence found so far suggests that failed politician Kibwetere's Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God murdered nearly 1,000 people, many of them children.

Sect leaders apparently began killing members, who had been urged to give their worldly goods to the cause, after they started demanding their money back when the world failed to end last December 31 as predicted.

Around 500 people were found burned to death at Kanungu on March 17.

Since then police have discovered another 389 bodies, mostly women and children, in mass graves at Rugazi, Rushojwa and Buhunga, all in the southwest, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.

The cult found ready support in a poor country ravaged by AIDS and with a history of fanatical religious sects. The most famous of these was Alice Lakwena's Holy Spirit Movement which led hundreds of its followers to death believing magic oil would protect them against government bullets.

Police said on Friday they would stop digging for bodies until reinforcements arrived, and appealed for international help to carry on the probe.

They said they would concentrate on checking suspected sites and guarding them until they could decide on how to proceed.

The announcement followed the discovery of a fourth suspected mass grave in a cult member's house at Kanungu.

Police Quizzing Relatives For List Of Victims

Police spokesman Eric Naigambi told Reuters on Saturday that, with relatives' help, police had begun compiling a full list of people whose bodies had been found at the various sites.

"We wanted to compare the queries with what they found in the registers at Kanungu. There have been several responses countrywide," Naigambi said.

"We think these people knew specifically where their relatives were going. It would give us an indication whether we have to search more or not."

The Ugandan government is to hold an inter-denominational prayer service at Kanungu on Sunday which will be attended by Vice-President Speciosa Kazibwe.

Associates have described Kibwetere, a self-styled prophet who claimed to talk directly to Jesus, as a violent man prone to seizures. He was briefly detained in a mental institution for manic depression in 1998.

He is said to have fallen under the influence of Gredonia Mwerinda, a former prostitute who claimed she talked to the Virgin Mary.

The pair were assisted by "Father" Dominic Kataribabo, a former Catholic priest with a master's degree in theology and a reputation as a studious and religious man.

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