No41 June 2000.4
A "Church"1 without hope
On 17 March 2000, hundreds of people were doused with petrol and burned to death while they were crowded together in a small building in the village of Kanungu which they used as a place of assembly. It must be the bloodiest episode in the contemporary history of religious sects. How can one explain the more than one thousand dead in this collective massacre? How is such a tragedy possible?
Hypnotized by fanatics into imagining a better life beyond this one, the African faithful of the "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments", founded in 1989, came to a terrible end. For several years, the founder of this Movement, sixty-eight year old Joseph Kibwetere, had worked as a schoolteacher and headmaster. He had made quite a name for himself and was elected Chairman of the Parish Council of Kagamba, in the diocese of Kabale. He had also entered politics but had been dismissed in 1980 when his motion had been rejected by Parliament. Shortly afterwards he believed that he had been favoured with a divine vision and given the mission of re-establishing the Ten Commandments. He gathered a group of disciples, including three ex-priests and some young women. These then were deluded into believing that they had received personal revelations of salvation which God commissioned them to proclaim to the world. The most disturbing feature of their message concerned the end of the world and this had repercussions on the life of the adherents.
The turning point came between 1993 and 1994 when the Movement transferred to the locality of Kanungu, in the district of Rukungiri, where the leaders bought a plot to put up their buildings. This property belonged to a former prostitute, Credonia Merinde, who said that she had received messages from the Virgin Mary and from Jesus. According to a former member of the sect, Father Paul Ikasire, she was motivated by greed and extorted large sums of money from her followers who installed themselves on this property with their children, after selling their land and all their possessions and handing over the proceeds to the leaders. The latter then began to preach openly that the end of the world was due on 31 December 1999, and the ensuing judgment had to be prepared for by penance. When the date passed without the expected cataclysm, some of the members of the Movement rebelled against the leaders and demanded, with threats, the restoration of their property. The most likely reconstruction of the subsequent events is that Kibwetere, his back now to the wall, decided to do away with all his followers rather than be himself the victim of their revenge or be obliged to restore the property he had appropriated. This theory is confirmed by Ugandan newspapers which reported the testimony of eye-witnesses who saw him leaving the place before the flames engulfed the unfortunate victims.
On the subject of this sect, Bishop Robert Gay, of the diocese of Kabale in which Kanungu is situated, said this: "Every religious feature of the Movement had been borrowed from elsewhere. Its members abused devotional symbols which had a valid meaning elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with fasting, nor with retiring into solitude and silence, as long as this is not excessive The majority of the people who joined the sect, especially the women and children, did not even know that it had been forbidden by the Church and that its priests had been excommunicated."
Sects are sprouting like mushrooms in Africa, and especially in Uganda, whose population has a deep sense of the transcendent and the sacred. In Buganda, people say good-bye to each other with the formula, "Akukuume", "May God protect you". It is common knowledge that the success of the sects is due above all to the sense of fraternity and closeness which their members experience. The attraction becomes even stronger when the sect offers integral salvation, including healings. The leaders use a fundamentalist reading of the Bible to attract people whose faith may be superficial and who are eager for novelties. Easily influenced by authority, many Africans allow themselves to be seduced by charismatic leaders and unscrupulous manipulators. The tragedy of Kanungu can be explained as hysterical submission and devotion to their leaders on the part of the followers.
There have been other similar events in Uganda. "The Lords Resistance Army", for example, led by Joseph Kony, is a rebel movement which calls itself Christian and is in armed conflict with the Museveni government. During the last years it has been responsible for countless tragedies and for the kidnapping of hundreds of children who are either used as fighters or sexually abused. In September 1999 the government authorities disbanded another apocalyptic sect, "The Church of the Final Message of World Warning", whose members were accused of kidnapping children and committing sexual violence against minors. In November the police closed down another sect, headed by Nabassa Gwajwa, a young woman of nineteen. She declared herself a prophet who had died in 1996 and had been sent back to earth by God to urge the faithful to repentance before the year 2,000. Neighbouring countries like Rwanda and Burundi are also afflicted by the sectarian phenomenon. The Catholic Church is not a sect, but it has been attacked by Rwandese government propaganda, which continually accuses it of responsibility for the 1994 genocide. 248 priests and members of religious communities have suffered death as a result of this persecution, including three bishops and 65 nuns. The authorities have also brought a bishop to trial, charging him with complicity in genocide. This campaign has inevitably created a feeling of deep distrust among the faithful. Moreover, the government has passed a decree of "religious liberalization" which has brought the number of so-called Christian churches from three to three hundred.
According to the psychiatrist Florence Baingana, in charge of the mental health department in the Uganda Ministry of Health, sectarian movements have been provoked by the passage to the year 2,000, by political disillusionment and by poverty. History has made us more vulnerable, she says, because life has been very hard. During the Amin régime, from 1971 to 1979, the only religions allowed were Catholic, Protestant and Muslim. In the present more liberal climate, there is no control.
Serge Truffaut, of the newspaper Le Devoir, writes in an article entitled, "Murderous Fatalism", of 3 April 2,000: "From the famines which have bled white Ethiopia and Somalia, the Rwandan genocide and the AIDS epidemic in Uganda, a kind of fatalistic culture has emerged, and a deep pessimism has descended on a country already economically very poor. Movements often originating in North America and Brazil have flocked to Uganda and offered a message of hope to thousands of people who no longer knew to what saint they should turn. According to Jean-Pierre Dozon, director of the Centre for African Studies in the Higher Institute for Social Studies in Paris, people are losing their bearings. The family is disintegrating. The sects exploit this situation by explaining that everything that has happened is the work of the devil and offering to perform exorcisms, extorting from the miserable poor the little money they have. Then the people are massacred."
What lessons can we draw from the tragedy in Uganda?
Certainly this one: do not trust religious freelances and remain critical towards the church, whatever it may be, to which one belongs.
The most dangerous form of human control is that which claims that it is being exercised in the name of God.
All these massacres in the name of a god one claims to be worshipping!
Here are some points as a guide for our reflection.
The Kind of "Church"1 one should not belong to.
We are not of course speaking here of the great ecclesial traditions which find expression in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, nor of those issuing directly from the Reformation: Anglicans, Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist. These Churches have their own mechanisms for internal purification which prevent them from manipulating the faithful. No doubt there have been aberrations, like the Crusades and the Inquisition in Catholic history, but normally there is present a healthy critical spirit to guard against excesses. But the further we move away from these great traditions, the more we are in danger from vagabond sects which are at the mercy of the fantasies of visionary fanatics. Sects like that of Kanungu can be described as schismatic movements from existing Churches experienced as corrupt and from which one must separate oneself in order to be saved. The sects condemn, more or less severely, those who do not accept their doctrine and say that eternal life is only for their own followers. The Bible is often subjected to a literal interpretation or to the personal thinking of the founder.
For these reasons one must avoid subscribing to:
An infallible church which regards itself as perfect;
a church which claims the monopoly of God;
a church which restricts salvation to its own followers;
a church which refuses to acknowledge the validity of any prayer outside itself;
a fundamentalist church which allows only a literal reading of the Word of God and does not allow anyone his or her personal interpretation;
a sectarian church which will only welcome the members of its own race, culture or class.
A merciless church which excommunicates those guilty of faults of weakness;
a church which attaches more importance to the sixth commandment than to the practice of justice;
a church which does not recognize that human beings are on pilgrimage and have the right to make mistakes;
a church which will not grant to the individual responsibility for his own actions;
a church which seeks to place the law above conscience;
a church which is more concerned with commandments than with life.
A rich and powerful church which demands the property of its members in return for the promise of eternal salvation;
an elitist church which rejects the poor and the insignificant and allies itself with the powerful ones of this world.
A violent church which encourages wars of religion in the name of the one God;
a church which will not allow the individual the freedom to reject it and even to struggle against it;
a church which seeks to prevent the human person from understanding the world in his own way and condemns as heretics those who claim such freedom of understanding;
a church greedy for power and too old to get on its knees;
a church incapable of recognizing its errors and asking for forgiveness.
A domineering church which is only happy with blind obedience from "sheep" who will never question the decisions of its leaders;
a church interested in souls, but not in persons;
a church indifferent to this world and interested only in the world to come;
a church which encourages escape from the difficulties of life by suicide;
a church which prefers to see its members killed rather than open up its accounts.
A church in which it is no longer possible to have hope against hope.
The Church to which one should seek to belong is different from all these. It is the Body of Christ, a serving and humble Church in the image of its Master.
Michel Fortin, M. Afr.
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