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Fire Kills Members Of Cult In Uganda

By Karl Vick, in The Washington Post, Sunday 19 March 2000

NAIROBI, March 18 –– At least 120 members of a doomsday cult burned to death in their church in a remote town in southwestern Uganda on Friday, authorities said today.

Police said the condition of the charred bodies made it difficult to say how many people died inside the makeshift church of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a sect that preached the world would end in 2000. It also was unclear whether they perished in a mass suicide or were locked inside the sanctuary before it was set alight, police added.

Estimates emerging from the town of Kanungu, about 215 miles southwest of the capital, Kampala, ranged from 120 dead to the entire reported church membership of about 240, and beyond.

"Prior to this incident their leader told believers to sell off their possessions and prepare to go to heaven," a police spokesman told reporters today. It was unclear how long before the conflagration the order was given. News agencies reported that members of the sect were burning and selling their property last year in preparation for the new millennium.

Initial reports said members of the sect had locked themselves in the sanctuary and set it afire after spending several hours chanting and singing.

The Associated Press, however, quoted an anonymous police officer today as saying the group's leader "lured the people inside the church and set it on fire."

After visiting the scene today, police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi told the Reuters news agency that all registered members of the sect in Kanungu had probably perished in the fire and that unregistered new arrivals may also have died.

He said the wooden-framed windows of the church appeared to have been boarded up and there was no sign of a struggle. The bodies--burned beyond recognition--lay in the center of the shell of the building.

He said the bodies had been left where they lay for forensic experts to examine on Sunday.

Churches of all stripes are thriving in Africa, which embraced the 19th-century missionaries who flocked there from Europe. Mainstream Christian faiths exist alongside thousands of individual churches often built around charismatic speakers and even "money-based theology."

As required by law, the Ten Commandments of God sect was registered by the government in 1997.

"I think it [the fire] calls on the state to review the issue of cults and see what measures to take to protect the ordinary people from cult leaders," Amama Mbabazi, Uganda's foreign affairs minister, told the government-owned Sunday Vision newspaper, according to the Associated Press.

In Uganda, doomsday cults have made headlines twice recently. In September, police raided the World Message Last Warning Church in the central Uganda district of Luwero, charging its leader with sexually exploiting children among more than 1,000 followers.

And in November, 100 riot police raided the camp of Nabassa Gwajwa, 19, a "prophetess" whom Ugandan authorities termed a security threat.

A rebel war in the country's north pits government forces against the Lord's Resistance Army, a group notorious for kidnapping children. It also is founded on the teachings of a "prophetess."