The death toll from a church fire in Uganda believed to be a mass suicide of parishioners had reached at least 500, officials said yesterday as they prepared for a mass burial.
Four days after the fire at the church compound belonging to the Christian sect Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, police said all five of its leaders had died in the blaze outside the Kanungu trading center, 220 miles southwest of Kampala. Four of the leaders were former Roman Catholic priests or lay workers.
Police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi said the identification of the alleged leaders was not based on forensic evidence but on "comments from local people" who told police the five had been inside the building - said to have been sealed from the inside before the fire began.
A new breed of Christian religious sects are mushrooming across Africa as people disillusioned with incapable politicians seek to improve their lives.
Dr. Florence Baingana, a psychiatrist in charge of the mental health division in the Ministry of Health, says fears about what would happen in the year 2000 and grinding poverty had fueled the religious-sect movement in Uganda. "People have these gaps in their lives, spiritual gaps, and they look for different ways of filling them like joining cults. Our history has made us more vulnerable because life has been very hard," she says.
The Kanungu sect has branches in several other parts of Uganda, and its members used only gestures to communicate, reportedly for fear of breaking commandments. But they do sing and pray aloud.
In the wake of the disaster, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni Monday warned the nation's religious leaders against those who might endanger the lives of the unsuspecting.
The government "believes in the freedom of worship. It also has a duty to protect the lives of the people of Uganda ... and to ensure that Ugandans are not at the mercy of some dangerous and opportunistic individuals who parade themselves as religious leaders," a statement from Museveni's office said.
Following the deadly blaze, rural people who lived near the compound told police and reporters that members had told them about a sighting of the Virgin Mary and that something big was going to happen. Kibweteere had reportedly predicted the end of the world on Dec. 31. When that didn't happen, he moved the date up to Dec. 31, 2000.
There were conflicting reports of when the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was established. Some say it was 1989, others 1994.
Mugenyi said police wanted to close the Kanungu compound last September but said the fact that police officers were members of the cult made it more difficult to close it down. He said that four current and two former officers died in the fire.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society