Most of the media coverage of the Ten Commandments of God group has assumed that what happened in Uganda was a mass suicide. This fits the popular notion--fueled by events like the Heaven's Gate tragedy--that mass suicides are typical cult behavior. And there is some evidence to support that notion in this case. Members of the group apparently destroyed worldly possessions, said good-bye to friends and relatives, indulged themselves with meat and drink, and prepared their church building for an event of great importance.

But there is at least as much evidence--perhaps more--that what happened in Uganda was mass murder.

The information is changing constantly, but here's what we know so far. It appears that during the last week, the members of the group at Kanungu began to prepare for their deliverance at the hands of the Virgin Mary. They slaughtered cattle, purchased a large supply of Coca-Cola, and indulged themselves with food. They also began to stock up on gasoline, ostensibly for fueling a new generator they had purchased for their property. Some members sold property and destroyed personal items. On the evening of March 15, they gathered for a party at which the beef and cola were consumed.

Then, on the morning of March 17, they gathered at their meeting place, which had been prepared ahead of time by boarding up the windows. Included in the assemblage were members and their children, possibly a few prospective members or visitors, and several police officers monitoring the group. After a period of singing and chanting, there was an explosion and fire. The doors had by this time also been barricaded, and no one escaped.

There has been no indication that any poisonous or narcotic substances had been consumed by group members prior to the fire. There is as yet no data to indicate whether the explosion, smoke inhalation, or the fire was the ultimate cause of most of the deaths, as the bodies were burned beyond recognition. More than 300 are dead; the number is likely to approach 500 and may be higher.

Still, the final demise of the group probably can best be termed an event of murder-suicide. The primary question remains (with no likely resolution in the immediate future) the number murdered versus those who committed suicide. At one end, the 78 minors who are known to have died were unable to give their consent and were obviously murdered. On the other end, the leaders and their assistants who made the final arrangements for the fire and then died in it obviously committed suicide.

Much data suggests that the incident was primarily a case of mass murder by the leadership of the group. It is possible that, as a whole, the group had gathered willingly in expectation of some form of supernatural deliverance, but were met instead with a trap prepared by the leaders. Normally in the period before a mass suicide, clues can be found. But in this case, many of the typical signs were missing. There were few rumors that an act of suicide was planned, family members and government observers seemed unconcerned, and no members appear to have left their children at home. No members in Kanungu refused to attend the final service, as usually happens in such cases. Four current police officers--sent to monitor the group--and two former policemen died in the fire.

Before the event, one nun had traveled through the area announcing that the Virgin would appear on March 17. One man, not a member of the group, whose wife and children died in the fire, is quoted as being told by his wife that something would happen on March 15, but if nothing happened, she would return. This suggests that while some knew of the planned fire, many did not.

All the leaders of the group were seen in town shortly before the fire and are believed to be among the dead. But among those who did not die were the wife and son of Kibweteere, who received a letter from him on March 16 exhorting them to carry on with the religion, as he and members of the group would die the next day. He also sent a suitcase of church literature, hymnals, and prayer books. There is some suggestion that strong economic pressure had been placed on Kibweteere by a shortage of resources to support the basic needs of those living at the group's center in Kanungu.

A second view that had run through much of the news coverage, and was adopted in the very first reports from Reuters and the BBC, suggests that the event was basically a mass religious suicide. This view is consistent with the actions of the group during the last week: destroying worldly possessions, saying good-bye to friends and relatives, indulging themselves with meat and drink, and the preparation of the church building. This view is also consistent with an unverified report that members had covered themselves with parafin and gasoline before the fire was started.

The suicide hypothesis has been strengthened by the discovery of bodies of people who had died before the fire and been hastily buried in former latrines under freshly poured concrete. They may have been dissident members who did not want to participate in the fiery end.

The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God is a small, new religious movement that originated in southwestern Uganda around 1987 among a group of former Roman Catholics. Among its leaders were Credonia Mwerinde (1960-2000?), a former prostitute, and Joseph Kibweteere (1932-2000?), a former Roman Catholic priest. Mwerinde owned farmland in Kanungu, a trading center in the remote Rukingeri district, and donated the land for the building of the Movement's headquarters, which came to include a variety of buildings, including a school building and a recently dedicated chapel. During the 1970s, Kibweteere was a well-to-do farmer, a politician, and a prominent member of the Catholic-based Democratic Party. In 1980, he lost a controversial election in the district of Ntungamo and, believing himself to be in danger, took refuge with an Anglican bishop in the town of Kabale (north of Kanungu). He later became a Roman Catholic priest, though his diocesan affiliation has yet to be traced. He functioned as bishop for the Movement.

Kibweteere emerged as the real leader of the group, though he was assisted by a cadre of former priests--Dominic Kataribabo (1934-2000?), Gredeina Mwerindi, and John Kamagara--and two nuns, all of whom had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Movement apparently began with the claim of one Paul Kashaku and other seers to have witnessed an apparition of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph. Contact continued by the process we know as channeling, and a set of messages was received and tape-recorded. These messages supplied the unique ideas that separated the group from mainstream Roman Catholic belief and practice. Messages from the Virgin also supplied ongoing guidance to the group. Eventually, Kanungu was designated as "Ishayuriro rya Maria" (Rescue Place for the Virgin Mary).

As the name of the Movement suggested, the group was concerned about the disregard for the Ten Commandments that they saw around them, especially among fellow Catholics. If the Commandments were not enforced, the world would end. Concerned with the possible disaster, they dedicated themselves to a life of strict adherence to the Commandments. They refrained from sex, developed a form of sign language that replaced speech as much as possible (except during worship services), and reduced contact with nonmembers.

There was an apocalyptic element in the group's teachings from the beginning, which became more defined as the decade came to a close. Reportedly, Kibweteere predicted some cataclysmic changes at the end of last year that would result in the deliverance of the group, but these did not occur. As has been common in cases of failed predictions, he initially restated the prophecies but recalculated the date for their occurrence for sometime this year. (The exact nature of the predictions is unclear; the press in Uganda merely stated that the leader had predicted the end of the world.)

Also, like many African new religions, the members adopted a simple uniform dress, in this case of green, black, and white. Through the late 1990s, much energy was spent upon construction at the headquarters complex. The Movement's school at one point boarded as many as 300 pupils. It was closed in 1998 by authorities, as the diet and housing did not meet government standards, and there was some objection to the curriculum. Several hundred members of the group resided at the headquarters complex. It appears that there were approximately 1,000 members nationwide, most former Roman Catholics.

We are only beginning to integrate the large body of knowledge of African Indigenous Churches (AIC) with what we have accumulated of Western new religious movements. We do know that, conservatively speaking, more than 5,000 AIC groups have arisen in sub-Saharan Africa since World War II and that the largest single block of them are composed of former Roman Catholics (the Roman Catholic Church being the largest religious organization on the continent). Uganda was not unique in either the number or even type of new religious movements that have formed in recent decades, but is unique in the atmosphere of death that pervaded the immediate area.

We are also aware that internationally during the last century, literally hundreds of sets of apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been reported within and on the fringe of the Roman Catholic Church. These groups have been identified with the most conservative element within the church, and a high percentage of them include a strong apocalyptic element. Many of these apparitions and the resulting channeled messages have become the basis of independent churches.

Many AIC movements are strongly identified with one or more tribal groupings and violence, often an expression of larger secular conflicts between tribes, police, and governments. The tribal associations of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments are, as of this writing, unknown.

The location of this tragedy was southwestern Uganda, relatively close to the point where the Uganda, Congo, and Rwanda borders come together. Kanungu is only 20 miles from Rwanda and 10 miles from the Congo border. This is a very unstable region, being close on one hand to the stronghold of the Congolese rebels that are attempting to overthrow the present government, and on the other to the sight of the massive genocide (some 800,000 in 1994) to the south. It is also an area ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. Uganda, in particular, lived through a horrible era under its former dictator Idi Amin (1970-79), credited with half a million deaths. Then, in the wake of the fall of Amin, Uganda became the home to a spectrum of new religious movements, a few, such as the Holy Spirit Movement and the Lord's Resistance Army, being aligned to revolutionary political forces.

The violence in the immediate vicinity of this occurrence is of a magnitude that most Westerners have difficulty comprehending. More recently, the government has moved to disperse several groups that it felt were dangerous either to the public order or to themselves. Since the incident with the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, the government of Uganda has also moved against surviving members of this group.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad