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From owner-aanews@atheists.org Wed Mar 22 05:00:30 2000
From: owner-aanews@atheists.org
Date: Tue, 21 Mar 2000 16:17:22 EST
Subject: AANEWS for Tuesday, March 21, 2000
To: brownh@hartford-hwp.com

subject: AANEWS for March 21, 2000

Death toll rises in Uganda suicide cult inferno

Ten Commandments Sect One Of Growing Number Of Religious Movements

AA News, #729, 21 March 2000

Uganda's Daily Mirror newspaper is reporting that the death toll has passed 500 from last Friday's mass sucide/murder spree involving a religious cult.

Members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God reportedly entered their church and doused themselves with gasoline and ignited a conflagration. Police authorities say that they are investigating the fire as a suicide and murder, since some of the victims have been identified as children.

The sect is one of a number of cult groups mushrooming throughout Uganda and the East Africa region. Many offer followers a charismatic leader or prophet who teaches a synchretic blend of fundamentalist Christian, new age and traditional animist beliefs, often with apocalyptic overtones. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was led by a former opposition politician, Joseph Kibweteere, with the assistance of several excommunicated Roman Catholic nuns and priests.

Reporting on the grisly scene at the sect's makeshift church in the small trading center of Kanungu, about 200 miles southwest of the capital Kampala, a BBC correspondent noted, "Evidence of the cult's Roman Catholic roots lay scattered around the compound. Three statutes of Jesus stood in the abandoned offices, while a large crucifix had been laid carefully on green cloth draped across a chair."

The Movement operates a number of churches and schools throughout Uganda. Police may be among the dead, raising questions of whether or not constabulary or other officials were involved in the millennialist sect.

Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini has allied himself with established denominational groups in an effort to thwart the rise of extreme religious cults. A spokesperson for Musevini told reporters, "The president was actually angered to learn that the adults who carried out what he called 'this barbarity' had taken children with them and subjected them to this cruelty."

Musevini also "criticized the leaders of some religious cults, which are increasingly luring unsuspecting people, taking advantage of their property, and misleading them into beliefs that endanger lives," Uganda radio said.

Local authorities say that evidence points to careful planning for a mass suicide. Other reports suggest that identification of many bodies will be almost impossible, and that it is unlikely an exact death toll will ever be reached.

"We know that the leaders of the church must have planned it," said one police official.

Groping For Answers

Already, observers are looking for explanations for Friday's tragedy. The East African region is awash with militant religious sects, including a number involved in armed struggled. In Uganda, a fringe denomination calling itself the Holy Spirit Movement has evolved into a full-fledged insurgency movement. The "juju militias" -- a term coined by writer Robert Kaplan -- kidnap children for sacrifice, ransom, or to replenish their ranks. Members of the Holy Spirit units often launch suicide attacks, or believe that magical oils render them invisible and immune to gunfire.

In November, Ugandan troops shut down a cult compound run by self-proclaimed prophetess, 19-year-old Nabassa Gwajwa, who preached that she died in 1996, rose from the dead and received a special message from God ordering her to take over the country.

Followers of the girl claimed that she lived off nothing but honey and had miraculous and prophetic powers. The cult fused Christian and local animist teachings. Locals suspiciously referred to the group's fortified compound as "Sodom."

Another religious militia is the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which is believed responsible for the abduction of thousands of Ugandan children. Reports from human rights groups and UNICEF says that the militia turns the youngsters into killers, laborers or sex slaves. The Army operates out of neighboring southern Sudan.

Similar to other fringe sects, the LRA teaches a fusion of Christian religion and local spiritual beliefs including a form of witchcraft. Like the Holy Spirit militia, members of the Lord's Resistance Army believe in the efficacy of magic spells, potions and oils. The consider white animals of any kind to be unholy, and also target owners of white bicycles and cars fearing that they could be used to take word of the LRA's activities to the Ugandan Army. Attacks by the LRA have killed tens of thousands of Ugandans, and displaced 250,000 people near the border region with Sudan.

The growth in bizarre and militant cults is seen by some as a reaction to years of government brutality and ethnic conflict, particularly under the regimes of former leaders like Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Some have become disenchanted with the efforts of western missionary groups as well, especially the Roman Catholic Church. Like the Ten Commandments Movement, the Lord's Resistance Army is headed by a former Roman Catholic priest turned self-proclaimed herbalist witch doctor, Joseph Lony.

Many of the sects point to the Ten Commandments as a source of doctrinal inspiration, and promise that when they seize power, they will use the Decalogue as the basis of governing the society.

At least one Muslim army has sprung up, partly in reaction to the militant pseudo-Christian militias now fighting for control of Uganda. The Allied Democratic Forces operates in the western mountains of the country, and pledges to form a secessionist Islamic state.

In the 1990s, the Ugandan government began taking steps in an effort to control the explosion of cult groups. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments was, ironically, one of the organizations that registered as part of a new surveillance program. It is reported that key leaders of the sect were on close terms with some government officials.

Friday's suicide was believed to be part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Movement leaders had predicted the end of the world for December 31, 1999, but reportedly adjusted the date for sometime this year.

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