A few sheets of corrugated iron protrude from the scarred earth of a pretty, eucalyptus-studded hillside near the town of Kanungu in southwestern Uganda, twisting and snapping in the wind. That, and a residual stench of burnt and rotting bodies, are all that remain of the mud and concrete church that once stood there. Ten days after the leaders of an obscure indigenous Christian cult gathered--or perhaps forced--their followers into the building, doused it in gasoline and then set it on fire, the site has become a macabre graveyard. Last week police bulldozed the building and its grisly contents--at least 330, and perhaps as many as 550, charred corpses--into a trench dug by prisoners, burying the physical evidence but not erasing the horror of a tragedy shocking even by the standards of Uganda's violent history. "What most disturbs me are the children who died," says Gervis Muteguya, who lost five relatives in the inferno. "Children are innocent. They had no choice in this."
Ugandan police agree and with the discovery late last week of at least 150 more bodies, including 60 children, in two mass graves in a compound belonging to the cult 50 km from the church in Kanungu, are treating the deaths as murder. Officials were still trying to determine whether cult leader Joseph Kibwetere had died in the blaze or escaped. The former teacher and devout Catholic helped establish The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, 10 years ago after claiming to have been told by the Virgin Mary that the world would soon end. In the mid-1990s he established a base on land belonging to a senior sect member in remote Kanungu, close to the Congolese border. Using money provided by followers, who commonly sold their homes and possessions upon joining, and funds from groups and individuals overseas, Kibwetere and his fellow leaders built a small complex of houses, offices and a school. They recruited new followers from nearby rural districts and as far away as the capital, Kampala.
Among them were Muteguya's mother, sister, brother, sister-in-law and niece, who joined in 1998. "I tried to stop them but it was impossible," he says, surveying the long red earthen mound where they lie buried. "They were indoctrinated in a manner that if you tried to argue with them they kept quiet. You ended up talking around like a mad person." Muteguya did manage to stop his relatives from selling the small family farm some 15 km from Kanungu, and late last year tried to convince his 16-year-old sister to leave the sect. "She came home to the village a few times and I think she had given up [on the sect] because my mother had been transferred to a different place. But they knew our home and they came and took her by force." That was around the time Kibwetere announced that Jesus had confirmed to him that the world would end on Dec. 31, 1999. When it didn't, he apparently set a new date and urged his devotees to sell whatever possessions they had left. Locals said the cult held a party--dubbed the Last Supper--at which 70 crates of soft drinks and three bulls were consumed. Two days later the cult members were dead.
Last week locals and relatives ignored a hand-drawn "Health Hazard, Out of Bounds" sign and filed into the cult's compound to pray for or simply gape at the dead. "Why do people join cults? What's in it for them?" asked Kibuuka Kalyesubula, a physician in a nearby hospital. "They're searching for something, I guess." In the well-ordered graveyard the cult used, rosemary plants and purple and white daisies push into the sun. A pile of scattered rubbish--children's report cards, a box of white chalk, blue pens, a small aluminum bell--proved to be from the cult's school, which the government had closed in 1998 after discovering that students were malnourished and sleeping on mattresses on the floor. "Starting in September there were rumors from here that the world was going to end," said the local Anglican bishop, John Ntegyereize. "I used to tell people, 'No, don't get worried. The end is not coming. The sun will rise from the east and set in the west just like any other day.' And on Jan. 1 it did. But some people still didn't believe."
The tragedy has focused attention on the rise of fringe Christian groups in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. Christianity is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else and in the next decade African Christians will outnumber European believers, leaving them second only to those in Latin America. Most of the tremendous growth is coming not in historic mainstream denominations like Anglican and Roman Catholic, but in newer, livelier, indigenous churches, which are springing up in cities and towns from Dakar to Cape Town. "People find the old churches a bit slow," says Winfred Muthoni, a shop assistant in a popular Nairobi Christian bookshop. "People want to get excited for God."
The new churches use local languages and mix traditional African spiritual beliefs with Pentecostal-style worship, including the use of drums, guitars and charismatic preachers. They also address local problems--poverty, drought, corruption--and offer a sense of belonging on a continent in which politicians often fail their people and where traditional social structures are coming apart. "People are looking for something, anything, to grasp onto," says Anna Kpaan of the United Methodist Church of Liberia, where a seven-year civil war has led to a boom in indigenous churches.
But while the new African churches may attract growing numbers of followers, mainstream denominations question the depth of faith in the newly converted, and the commitment of the churches to their flock. Like the Kanungu sect, many of the new churches are built around a charismatic and usually fade once that leader leaves or dies. "They exploit people who are looking for simplistic answers and are therefore very vulnerable," says Grace Kaiso, executive secretary of the Uganda Joint Christian Council. Splits within churches also cause problems. In November a woman was killed in Kisumu, Kenya, when supporters of one preacher clashed with supporters of another.
Most African churches are not as extreme as Uganda's doomsday cult, but the tragedy in Kanungu may slow the proliferation of indigenous churches, at least in Uganda. Last week the Ugandan government suspended registration of new religious organizations and said it would stop all-night services in existing churches. "We have to do something," says Muteguya, clutching his black-rimmed glasses in both hands. "It defeats my understanding as to why my family would abandon their home and come here for this. Why?" All Ugandans were asking the same question.