March 16, 2009

Remembering the "African Jonestown"

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

Can cults be dangerous?

You won’t have to convince Ugandans. Their recent history is enough to persuade them of the serious harm cults can bring.

Nine years ago this week, on March 17, 2000, a tragedy took place that has come to be known as the Kanungu Massacre—or the “African Jonestown.” Hundreds of men, women, and children perished in a southern Uganda town after being locked into a church building which was then set ablaze. The media called it a “mass suicide,” but the facts point to something quite different.

MRTCG LeadersSwiss scholar Jean-François Mayer explains that the group first “emerged around [Roman Catholic] visionaries who shared their messages and were able to attract a following which even included a few priests.” Credonia Mwerinde and other local visionaries reported that the Virgin Mary told them the end of the world was fast approaching and that only those who had properly purified themselves would be prepared for Christ’s return. Joseph Kibweteere joined Mwerinde and other Catholics in spreading this end-time message, and in 1989 the two and several others founded the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG).

The MRTCG grew as its doomsday message found a ready audience. Most scholars agree that political instability, corrupt Catholic leadership, and an AIDS epidemic led many Ugandans to believe in the need for moral renewal in the midst of global collapse. The cult eventually located its headquarters in what is now the Kanungu district, where Mwerinde’s father gave them a large area of land before he died.

Those who joined were required to surrender all of their earthly possessions and live a strict lifestyle of devotion to God. By submitting to the absolute leadership of Kibweteere, Mwerinde, and others they would escape the wrath to come. Sex was forbidden among married couples, and their children were moved to live elsewhere. At times, even speaking was forbidden. Living in the highly controlled compound separated them from the rest of society and made them dependent on the group.

The MRTCG leadership predicted that Jesus would return by the year 2000; questions and disaffection arose when January arrived and the prophecy failed. Leaders quickly set March 17th as the new date. Unknown to their followers, Kibweteere, Mwerinde, and their accomplices started planning the end of their movement before it could unravel completely. Much of the group’s property and livestock was sold off for next to nothing. A communal feast was held on March 15. And one leader was spotted purchasing sulfuric acid, which would intensify a fire.

KanunguAt the appointed hour the faithful gathered in the church to welcome their day of deliverance, perhaps not noticing that the doors and windows had been boarded up. In the midst of their singing and prayers, a loud explosion was heard, and fire ripped through the church.

Escape was impossible. No one survived.

In the days that followed, Uganda police investigating MRTCG properties discovered hundreds more of the cult’s victims in mass burial sites at four locations across the country. The death toll from the cult continued to rise until excavations were called off. The final official number of those dead reached 770, though other estimates range as high as 900 to 1,000, and the actual count will likely never be known. The cult’s leaders have never been apprehended.

Nine years ago, Uganda experienced an unspeakable tragedy at the hands of a cult. Since then, Christian leaders have demanded accountability and sought to raise awareness of the dangers such groups pose to the church and society, even as cults multiply and the government entertains proposals to impose tighter restrictions on all religious organizations. We have been asked to help the Body of Christ in Uganda to warn and train believers so they can recognize and resist deception—in hopes that many can be spared not only the devastation that cults can cause in this life, but the infinitely greater loss of eternal separation from God in the next.

Please pray with us that soon we can establish ACFAR in Kampala to equip African Christians for the vital task of discernment, defending the faith, and cult evangelism.