MABUMBA, Uganda, March 26 -- Meeting Joseph Kibwetere for the first time, the three women told him that he had been anointed to help them spread the word of God, that the Virgin Mary had led them to him, a Roman Catholic known among many Ugandans for his piety, prayer and good works.
To hear Mr. Kibwetere's relatives tell the tale, that meeting in 1989 was the start of a fateful chain of events that led to estrangement from their father and husband, his clash with the Roman Catholic Church, eventual excommunication and, on March 17, the death of at least 330 followers of his cult in a conflagration that engulfed their secluded mountain church at Kanungu.
Whether the inferno was a mass suicide -- the second-largest after Jim Jones led 912 followers to their deaths in Guyana in 1978 -- or a mass murder is unclear.
The Ugandan police, understaffed and underequipped, are leaning to the latter theory, particularly since they unearthed 159 more bodies this week. Six were buried in a latrine beside the burned-out church, and 153 others, including 59 children, at a cult compound some 30 miles away.
Today the police said they were searching for more bodies after finding at least one at a house that belonged to another leader of the cult.
Whatever the truth behind these grisly spectacles, this impoverished, mostly Christian nation of 11 million faces many questions: about the importance of religious freedom in a country where many cults have flourished, about the competence of the government's security and intelligence network, about Mr. Kibwetere's mysterious Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God and, of course, about the man at its center.
Like so much else, the fate of Joseph Kibwetere remains a puzzle. No one knows if he was among the dead in the scorched chapel or if he absconded before or during the fire.
For now, the police are assuming that he and perhaps some of the cult's other leaders are alive, which makes him a murder suspect. Dead or alive, Mr. Kibwetere is, to his eldest son, a murderer. "I feel pity for those people who died," the son, Juvenar Rugambwa, 36, said at the family's home here. "In fact, I hate my father. If he has escaped and I meet him, I wouldn't hesitate killing him."
Mr. Rugambwa and his mother, Theresa, who bore Mr. Kibwetere 16 children during 40 years of marriage, said the man they had known for decades as a pious Catholic devoted to good works started to change drastically after three women approached him at a service one day in 1989.
The three women -- Credonia Mwerinde, Ursula Komuhangi and Angela Mugisha -- were already leaders of a Christian cult devoted to the Virgin Mary, who, they said, had instructed him to take them in.
And so he did, and so began the cult, the family said. Predicting that the world would end with 1999, the cult crusaded for a return to a life according to the Ten Commandments, saying they were the only path to salvation.
Born in 1932 in this region, Joseph Kibwetere came up through the local Catholic school and, contemporaries say, clung to his faith as the rudder that would lead him and those around him down the righteous path. He became a schoolteacher and ended up back at his own primary school, where he impressed his students with his devotion to his faith.
"He was a godly man," said Matthias Igusha, a student at Mr. Kibwetere's school in the early 1960's. "You could tell by his practice: going to church, tending to the sick."
Mr. Kibwetere's wealth and stature grew, as did his dedication to the church. He became a supervisor for the region's Catholic schools and founded a private Catholic school of his own. Some years later, after moving into government service and politics, he donated the land on which two local Catholic churches are built.
"We never fought," recalled his wife, also a teacher, whom he married in 1960. "We had no quarrels in our home. He was a peaceful man." The room in which she talked bore the marks of religious devotion: images of Jesus and Mary, rosary beads and prayer cards, a photograph of her husband praying on a pilgrimage to Rome and a certificate recognizing the special papal blessing that he received there.
"We grew up in a lovely home, a lovely family, until he brought those people home," said their son, a contractor and father of four children.
When the three strange women first appeared, Mrs. Kibwetere at first joined in their activities. But as more and more followers came to live on the family's farm, tensions grew between the 200 or so followers and the family. "When the people came here they started mistreating us, the family members, the children and the mother, saying the Virgin Mary had told them to do things, to keep us without food and to punish us," Mr. Rugambwa recalled. So he fought back, first on his own, later with the support of his mother and his siblings, against the people who he said had made him feel like a prisoner in his own home.
The family won. In 1992 the cult and its leader packed up and left for Kanungu. Mr. Kibwetere never moved back, despite his family's invitation to do so.
Settled on a magnificent plot of fertile hillside land, the cult set about spreading its message, chiefly through a 163-page manifesto, "A Timely Message From Heaven: The End of the Present Times."
Much of the book is devoted to the revelations that Mr. Kibwetere and other cult leaders said they had received. The volume contains dark prophecies of famines and wars, of rivers turning to blood and of food turning to poison. It enumerates the problems that will be visited on particular countries: "Mozambique will be destroyed by its own machinery," and "Japan will have rain falling for as long as my Father wants."
With Mr. Kibwetere as chief proselytizer, the cult took hold.
"This man was prominent in many ways," his son said, pointing out his father's service on government commissions and his role as an organizer for the opposition Democratic Party. "People respected him because he was religious and he had money. When you have money, you are respected and liked. And he had a convincing tongue. He was bright. He was educated." But in the eyes of the church, Mr. Kibwetere had become a sinner of the worst kind, claiming to have contact with God himself and refusing the orders of an old friend, Bishop John Baptist Kakubi, to desist.
Florence Igusha, who came to know Mr. Kibwetere through her husband, is thankful for the bishop's admonitions. "I think if the bishop had not stopped us, I think most of us would have joined him," she said. The church's anger grew when he recruited two priests to his cause, and eventually Mr. Kibwetere was excommunicated.
"In effect he challenged the leadership of the pope," the now retired Bishop Kakubi told the official government newspaper, New Vision.
The cult's ranksswelled, with estimates of its peak membership ranging from 1,000 to 4,000. To join, people were expected to sell off their possessions and turn over the considerable sums of money, say many relatives of those who perished at Kanungu.
On the compound an ascetic lifestyle took hold, with sex even among married couples discouraged and communication limited largely to a system of sign language in which they were instructed, the relatives said.
Exactly what happened when the world did not end on Dec. 31, 1999 is not clear. What is known is that dozens of followers converged on the Kanungu compound on March 16 and 17, joining hundreds already there.
On the morning of March 17 the flock gathered in the chapel, which faced Rugyeyo Mountain. One blaze, or maybe several, were ignited.
At 12:45 p.m. the police station at Rukungiri, the headquarters for the area, received a radio call, the deputy commander, Stephen Musoke, said last week. The call was from an officer in Kambuga, a couple of villages from Kanungu and the nearest one with a police post. There had been a fire at the headquarters of the Kibwetere group, the officer reported, and there were people dead.
Only as villagers and police officers descended on the smoldering building did the scale become apparent. The remains of hundreds of people, mostly their bones and in some cases only their ashes, lay massed at one end of the chapel. Virtually no one could be positively identified, and by Monday night they had all been buried together in a grave alongside their wrecked house of worship.
The day before the fire, a parcel from Kanungu arrived at the home of Mr. Kibwetere's family. It contained books and documents from the cult, its certificate of registration, a copy of the 10 commandments of the cult and other items. All was sent, the family believes, by Joseph Kibwetere.
"Nobody else would have sent them," the son said. "He wanted us to carry on the message."