Doomsday Sect's Handbook Had Message

AP, April 4, 2000
By Craig Nelson

KANUNGA, Uganda (AP) - In a 163-page handbook distributed across Uganda, a doomsday sect offered a seductive message of heavenly salvation to African villagers struggling with poverty and the scourge of AIDS.

For the unconvinced there was a different fate - a fiery torment where they would burn for eternity.

The paperbound tract, ``A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times,'' was distributed by the thousands; The Associated Press obtained a copy from a man in the southwestern village of Rugazi who said cult members tried unsuccessfully to recruit him.

It offers little but stark choices and homespun advice for righteous living. For hundreds who adhered to its tenets, the reward was ultimately a vicious death.

Authorities say leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God masterminded the killings of at least 924 followers between late February and mid-March. Police say 530 burned alive inside a chapel at the sect's base in Kanungu; 394 bodies were found buried or hidden at sect compounds.

According to survivors of the movement, sect members demanded the return of possessions they had surrendered to the cult after the world failed to end on Dec. 31, as the leaders had predicted - a demand said to have triggered the killings.

The 16-part tract - with a picture of a bleeding, crucified Christ on its cover - rarely refers to the surrendering of goods, noting only that the movement ``resolves that each person should contribute.''

Instead, it focuses on Uganda's afflictions, casting them as satanic, with obedience to the Ten Commandments the only cure.

AIDS, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Ugandans since the early 1980s, is divine punishment caused by beer-drinking and by perverse sexual practices that ``increase the anger of the Almighty God,'' it says.

All alcohol is ``now under the control of Satan,'' it warns. ``If anyone wants to go to heaven and is drinking he should stop.''

For the unwary, evil lurks everywhere. Herbalists - called ``witch doctors'' by cult members but relied on by many Ugandans for medical care - are in the ``company of the devil.''

Even animals aren't spared: ``Cats and dogs are already possessed by the devil. From these animals Satan is actually fighting against man, particularly those who own animals.''

According to the booklet, Ugandans aren't alone in facing judgment. Cities and countries also must repent or face punishment, it says, giving these admonitions:

London? ``Your desire for doing evil will be fulfilled.''

Mexico? ``Heavy arms that are going to destroy five countries will be transported through your roads.''

France? ``Your laziness will not permit you to endure the chastisement that will be inflicted upon you until you are destroyed in lamentations.''

Because their membership drew heavily on Roman Catholics unhappy with, but still loyal to, their church, the writers were eager to stress they were not establishing a new faith.

``Ours is not a religion, but a movement that endeavors to make the people aware of the fact that the Commandments of God have been abandoned, and it gives what should be done for their observance.''

Churches and religious movements come and go frequently in Uganda's roiling religious marketplace as people seek answers to life's questions and relief from its burdens. ``In Kampala, you cannot make two steps without meeting a religion,'' the writers remark.

The booklet also strives to buttress the legitimacy of the sect's leaders. Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde and her sister Angelina Migisha each receive a chapter devoted to the visions they claimed to have received from Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

The visions are used to give divine sanction to the sect's bans on conversation, sex, cosmetics and short skirts, and support for its harsh regimen of fasting, prayer and work.

With the death toll caused by AIDS and the reigns of terror led by former Presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote, apocalypse is a familiar idiom to Ugandans.

Yet the booklet, last updated in 1996, gives little attention to the sect's end-of-the-world prophecy.

What it does mention is haunting.

``The Lord told me that hurricanes of fire would rain forth from heaven and spread over those who would not have repented...This fire will also reach inside the buildings; there is no way one can escape.''

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