Horrific Cult Began With Sublime Vision of Virgin Mary (Jan-Apr 2000)

By Matt Dabbs

by Greg Taylor
January – April, 2000

The horror that left an estimated 929 cult members dead began with a sublime vision of Mother Mary, according to the sinister legend told by survivors of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments massacre.

While world news organizations have tried to connect this tragedy to rebels and politics in the Great Lakes Region of Uganda, cult prophets instead claimed it to be connected directly to God. Ten years ago, cult co-leader and self-proclaimed prophet Credonia Mwerinde, 48, told followers that she saw a vision of Mother Mary in a backwoods cave in the mountains of Southwestern Uganda. Whatever Mwerinde did see that day in the cave led to the most destructive religious cult slaughter in recent world history. The March 17 Kanungu church inferno, which killed as many as 500 people, mostly women and children – and subsequent discoveries of more than 400 corpses in five mass graves at cult branches, has shaken Uganda at the roots, sparking cult hysteria and government monitoring of legitimate Christian churches.

What We Learned from Kanungu
I spoke with an ex-cult member, Mary Mugisha, 28, in Kanungu, less than a mile from the cult compound where 500 died. Telling me about life in the cult, Mugisha sat in front of a rough painting of a crucifix on her mud wall. Sadly, the picture of Christ imprinted by cult leaders on followers like Mugisha was even more distorted than the crude painting of Jesus on the earthen wall of Mugisha’s hut. A member of the infamous Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments from 1989-94, Mugisha was warned to escape the cult before it was too late.

“Leaders had locked me up in a storeroom for a week without food because I spoke,” Mugisha told me. “We were not to speak with out permission. My sister rolled peanuts under the door for me to eat. One of the leaders helped me to escape and warned me never to return.”

Though within sight of the cult compound in these terraced, scenic hills filled with banana plants, Mugisha – which means “grace” in her language – said she is still afraid to return to the site of the massacre, even to mourn her four siblings who died in the inferno. “If others go there with me, I may go,” Mugisha said.

The Marks of a Cult
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments followed the characteristic lines of a pseudo-Christian cult. Leaders claim special revelation inconsistent with the biblical witness, exercise absolute authority over the group, and enforce their rule by physical and spiritual abuse and a secretive compound lifestyle.

The groups that get attention are the ones that murder their own disciples. Christian churches and democratic governments agree that this act is heinous and reprehensible. Before such a calamity as Kanungu occurs, however, defining cults is difficult for churches. Many in Uganda have been asking, or have been afraid to ask, “What is a cult?” One of the problems with defining a cult is that there are many types: religious: political, philosophical, and artistic. Many worldwide Christian leaders define a religious pseudo-Christian cult as an organized group, led by a self-declared prophet, which holds classically heretical views about Christ, biblical authority, revelation, and eschatology and uses manipulation, fear, and abuse to promote their aberrant or unorthodox views.

Some Christians, on the other hand, fear overstepping their own authority to judge gorups that call themselves Christian. Doctrines can provide clues of a cultic emphasis, but the most important characteristic of a cult is where the group places its authority. While showing Jinja area Christians photos of the burned rubble at Kanungu, I told them the first step the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments took to becoming a cult was to cast aside the authority of Christ and scripture and to locate their authority in men and their dreams.

Special Revelation
Self-proclaimed prophets of the cult, Joseph Kibwetere, 68, and Credonia Mwerinde, 48, claimed special revelation and total authority over their several thousand followers. Visions were fascinating to them and considered more weighty authority than scripture. They warned that the world would see doom because of failing to keep the Ten Commandments. Cult co-leader Joseph Kibwetere’s failed prophecy that Jesus would come in 2000 created anarchy among followers who had sold possessions and laid the proceeds at leaders’ feet to await Christ’s return. “Credonia Mwerinde” was the treasurer, and we would go and put money on the table in front of her,” Mugisha said. “(Mwerinde and Kibwetere) said that when we sold all our property, the world would be destroyed, but when the year 2000 came, the group started to complain and rise up against the leaders. I think that’s why they burned them,” Mugisha said.

Authority
Rather than being led by scripture and the Holy Spirit, cult followers were led by fear and intimidation. Leaders demanded complete obedience to directives that they claimed to receive from Mother Mary. They were not allowed to have Bibles and discouraged from reading anything without permission. “Mwerinde was really the one in charge of the whole cult,” Mugisha said. “She called herself Head of the Program.”

Mwerinde, with the help of Usula Kamuhangi, created the ‘Temple of Mary Church’ in the early ’80s after the first vision, then official opened the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in 1990, with Kibwetere as the ostensible leader. Kibwetere claimed he also received a vision from Mother Mary, telling him to lead the worldwide restoration to obey the Ten Commandments.

Mugisha told me she had no choice except to join the group in 1989 because she attended the primary school where the cult compound is located in Kanungu. Mugisha remembers being punished for rebelling against leaders’ authority.

“They put me on dried banana leaves and set them on fire. They said this would chase away the spirit of my father,” Mugisha said. She believes her father, also a follower, was poisoned by Mwerinde, his own sister, in 1989 for quarreling with her.

Abusive Leadership
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments was very secretive and abusive. “Leaders separated children from their parents, husbands from their wives. They moved them to other camps. You could not ask where someone was without being punished,” Mugisha said. “As a punishment for leaving the group, leaders burned my uncle’s house. They said Mother Mary burned the house because my uncle deserted the group. He built another house, and they burned that one also,” Mugisha said.

Cult leaders began in March this year calling members, ex-members, and neighbors to their cult headquarters in remote Kanungu, Uganda, where they said they wanted to dedicate a new church they had recently built. They sent for ex-member Mugisha, who now lives in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, 400 kilometers from Kanungu. “I was trying to get the fare to take a bus to Kanungu, because they were calling all members and ex-members to come dedicate the new church that they built. I didn’t get money in time, so I didn’t go March 17,” Mugisha said.

Had Mugisha gone to the dedication she might have been one more victim in the Kanungu inferno.

What We Lost at Kanungu
The Kanungu cult massacre has left a broad path of destruction. As investigators unearthed bodies in at least five mass graves, cult panic has hit Uganda, and police have dispersed religious groups suspected of having connections with cultic groups. Churches are scrambling to secure letters of approval from church boards and local government so they are not confused with the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments cult. Nick Fouts, who went with me to Kanungu, said one of the young village Churches of Christ near his home in Mbarara had suspended meetings until they could get letters from local church and government leaders confirming that they are not connected with the cult.

Some government officials are wrongly associating charismatic and Pentecostal churches with the Kanungu cult. A Ugandan parliament member said, “If I had the power I would outlaw these cults and sects and leave only the mainstream churches and Muslims.” In the early ’70s, Idi Amin banned all religious groups except for Roman Catholics, Protestants (primarily Anglicans), and Muslims, but this ban has since been lifted.

Ugandans have lost faith in many of their religious leaders. Government has lost confidence in churches. But maybe this will turn us all again to our true Lord. Perhaps we will again ask what it means to be a true servant of Christ, what it means to lead a body of believers. Maybe all of us in Uganda will again ask “Who is Jesus Christ?” and “What does it mean to follow Him?”

What Kanungu Burned in Our Minds
As I stood with Nick Fouts at the site where 500 Ugandans were burned to death, I tried to imagine what life must have been like in Kanungu. Had real life ever existed here? There were two flower arrangements on top of mounds where the remains of the dead were buried in mass. Buildings were abandoned, and idol-like statues of Jesus, Mary and the original landowner of the cult property were strewn about the children’s school classroom. The pit latrine, where six bodies were found after the church fire, still emitted a pungent odor, and I wondered if more bodies were still buried nearby.

The Kanungu cult fire and killings have scorched the religious idealism of Ugandans. I, too, have been deeply affected by what I saw at Kanungu, calling me to thank God for my own “Restoration” heritage that stands in opposition to such abhorrent cults. Our authority and only head is Christ, our guide for faith and practice is the Bible, which we seek to understand through the Holy Spirit as God directs our lives and ministries. And when all the gold, costly stones and wood of our churches go up in smoke, our foundation will be revealed for what it is.

In Restoration history, we also had a church, which committed suicide. But this was a very different termination. On June 28th, 1804, Barton W. Stone, John Thompson and David Purviance wrote the figurative death certificate for the former Springfield Presbytery with a document they titled the “Last Will and Testament of the Spring field Presbytery.” They wrote: “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”

The Springfield group encouraged their brethren not to mourn over the death of the Presbytery of Springfield but to “betake themselves to the Rock of Ages, and follow Jesus for the future,” to read their Bibles and see the judgment of God, and to prepare for death before it is too late.

The Kanungu-based Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments left a legacy of death. Our Restoration movement, on the other hand, has laid down its own authority many times over, writing its own death certificate, and producing a legacy of new life with each deadly stroke of the Restoration editor’s pen or proclamation from the Restorationist’s pulpit.

Is it time some of our churches again write a Last Will and Testament?Wineskins Magazine

Greg Taylor

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About...

Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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