Cult Tragedy in the News
Ugandan authorities said on Saturday
leaders of a doomsday cult
appeared to have systematically killed cult members for months, and feared finding more mass graves around the country.
On Friday, police found 153 bodies under a building used by the cult in Buhunga in southwest Uganda. Many of the victims were apparently clubbed, strangled or hacked to death in recent weeks. Some may also have been poisoned.
Authorities said more bodies could be found at that site, as well as at three other locations used by the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in the region.
Some of the victims in Buhunga were thought to have died up to four months ago, but the vast majority appeared to have been killed this year, some just two weeks ago.
Muhwezi said some cult members -- who had been asked to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the church -- had apparently demanded their money back when a prediction the world would end on December 31, 1999 failed to come true.
''When nothing happened on the 31st it appeared they (the cult's leaders) had a problem,'' he said.
The solution appeared to have been to kill unruly cult members. There were 59 children in the three graves in Buhunga, including the body of a two-year-old. ''When they killed the mothers it goes without saying that they had to kill the children as well,'' Muhwezi said.
Other Cults in Uganda
A colony once called the Pearl of Africa
for its fertile soil and plentiful rains, Uganda became a byword for African horrors during the 1971-79 dictatorship of Idi Amin, whose regime killed up to 500,000 opponents and expelled 70,000 people of Asian origin.
More bloodshed followed Amin's downfall, until guerrilla leader Yoweri Museveni won power in 1986, restoring relative peace.
But an extreme and violent Christian cult
, the Holy Spirit Movement
, sprang up among northern ethnic groups in the late 1980s. Many hundreds of believers died in suicidal attacks, convinced that magic oil would protect them from the bullets of Museveni's troops.
Its successor, the Lord's Resistance Army
, is still pursuing a guerrilla war, kidnapping large numbers of boys and girls to serve as soldiers and sex slaves and dodging back and forth across the border with southern Sudan, which has a long running civil war of its own.
Since last year, the police have asked all religious sects or cults to register their members locally. In September, police in central Uganda disbanded another Doomsday cult, the 1,000-member ''World Message Last Warning
The cult's leaders were charged with rape, kidnapping and illegal confinement.
Following the tragedy, New Vision, Uganda's state-owned newspaper, published this editorial on the need to monitor and control dangerous cults:
As The world joins Uganda
in mourning the deaths of hundreds at the hands of a religious sect in Rukungiri on Friday, the focus is inevitably going to be on how to handle cults
It is a big challenge, especially in a country that cherishes freedom of worship
as enshrined in the Constitution. There can, indeed, be a fine line between genuine religious worship and the eccentricities that characterise cults
From a civic point of view, dangerous cultic behaviour will always manifest itself in a way that will alert the public and give the authorities ample time to monitor and act for the social good. Indeed, two dangerous and potentially suicidal cults had their evil designs nipped in the bud when authorities reacted to local social alarm.
From a religious point of view, many of the cults are pseudo-Christian
, which poses a big challenge to mainstream churches. The cults, by definition, either misinterpret the scriptures, or entirely ignore them
The churches should work together to reach out to the misled and teach the scriptures as they are. Kenya is now tackling an age-old evil of human sacrifice following last year's publication of a report on nationwide devil worship. There could be lessons for Uganda.
At the social-political level, the government needs to give the NGO Board powers and facilitate it to fully vet before licensing and subsequently monitor organisations' activities in the field.
Cult Apologists Rush In
The New Vision
editorial calls for a balanced approach that stands in stark contrast to the suggestions of cult apologists
. The latter desperately want to avoid comparisons with other cult crimes, particularly the mass murder/suicide at Jim Jones' Peoples Temple
Thus Cult defenders
and Scientology's so-called "Cult Awareness Network" (CAN)
immediately rushed in, playing their usual blame-everyone-else-but-leave-cults-alone game.
CAN, predictably, urges the media to get its information from J. Gordon Melton
(who heads CESNUR USA, and is known to cult experts as "the father of cult apologists"), James R. Lewis
(who told the Japanese that Aum Shinrikyo
had not produced Sarin poison gas), and Catherine Wessinger
. Wessinger earlier found a way to lay the blame for the Peoples Temple
murder-suicides at the feet of the media, former members, anti-cult groups, and congressman Leo Ryan
(who was shot and killed by Jim Jones' men).
CESNUR's Massimo Introvigne's comments largely consisted of information culled from publicly available news reports - an odd practice, given the fact that most initial reports are inaccurate, or sketchy at best. Too, if
a media report includes wrong information, and if
a ''scholar'' then restates it (unattributed) in a so-called analysis
, the media can then report the scholar's comments as ''fact.'' Thus Introvigne's hasty efforts at trying to explain a situation he knows little to nothing about contributes to the problem of inaccurate reporting.
Melton's comments were similarly laced with unattributed, second-hand media reports.
And while cult experts, government officials and media professionals alike see the similarities between the Uganda situation and other cult crimes, Melton continues to push his peculiar spin.
For Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer
, author of ''Cults in Our Midst,'' the carnage in Uganda is a Peoples Temple
Amid a mounting government and media probe, followers of the Rev. Jim Jones fled from San Francisco to the jungle in Guyana, where they and their leader died in a macabre ritual of murder and mass suicide. Many temple members willingly drank cyanide-laced ''Flavor- Aid;'' some had it poured down their throats, and others were shot.
In Uganda, the church was led by a defrocked Roman Catholic priest, an excommunicated Catholic layman, and a woman who claimed to receive messages from God and apocalyptic prophesies from the Virgin Mary. Authorities say two of those three leaders may still be alive.
In recent days, stories of abuses in the Ugandan sect have emerged that are reminiscent of those committed by Jones, a Christian socialist who was originally ordained in the Disciples of Christ, a mainline Protestant church. Both sects demanded strict obedience, demonized outsiders and promised impoverished members a utopian afterlife.
''It looks like the usual cult pattern where a corrupt person wants power and money. He gets this woman helper, and they start making ridiculous predictions that the world will end,'' Singer said. ''When it didn't end, people probably wanted their money so they could return to their villages.
''It's just like we've seen before,'' she added. ''Jonestown was also a constructed, engineered mass murder.''
Other experts warned against comparing the Uganda church to Peoples Temple, or to other notorious doomsday cults and mass suicide sects such as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, or Heaven's Gate, the UFO cult in Southern California.
J. Gordon Melton, who directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara and is an authority on new religious movements, said most of the adult members at Jonestown were sincere ideological converts who decided that their religious and political views were worth dying for in an act of ''revolutionary suicide.''
Melton's take on the Jonestown mass murder/suicide is not only inaccurate, but outright deceptive. He has also been quoted as saying:
''The tragedy at Jonestown ... in spite of having little relationship to nonconventional religions in general, was transformed by the anti-cult movement and the media into the definitive cult horror story.''
(Chicago Tribune, 25.11.1988)
''The People's Temple was a congregation in a Christian denomination recognized by the National Council of Churches," he said. "This wasn't a cult. This was a respectable, mainline Christian group.''
(Milwaukee Journal, 3.12.1988)
''Jones became a cult leader and the Peoples Temple became a cult, literally overnight. And what was forgotten was that this was actually a church in a mainstream religion.... He was about as mainstream as you could get.'' (The Sacramento Bee, 15.11.1998)
As those who are familiar with ex-member reports know, while Peoples Temple may have started out as a ''respectable, mainline Christian group,'' it certainly did not become a cult ''literally overnight.'' But Melton, who calls ex-members liars
, can not afford to admit he was wrong.
Note, too, that earlier, Melton joined a trip to Japan
to defend Japan's killer cult Aum Shinrikyo's
religious freedom. He and three others (including James Lewis
... held a pair of news conferences to suggest that the sect was innocent of criminal charges and was a victim of excessive police pressure.
The Americans said the sect had invited them to visit after they expressed concern to Aum's New York branch about religious freedom in Japan. The said their airfare, hotel bills and ''basic expenses'' were paid by the cult.
points out that ''religious freedom'' was not an issue in how Japan dealt with Aum Shinrikyo:
Reliable reports since 1995 have shown that Japanese authorities were actually not just overly cautious, but negligent and deferential, if not protective, regarding criminal activities by Aum, because of its status as an NRM. ''Some observers wonder what took the Japanese authorities so long to take decisive action. It seems apparent that enough serious concerns had been raised about various Aum activities to warrant a more serious police inquiry prior to the subway gas attack'' (Mullins, 1997, p. 321). The group can only be described as extremely violent and murderous.
Beit-Hallahmi also points out that ex-member testimonies generally are reliable:
Recent and less recent NRM catastrophes
help us realize that in every single case allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors have been closer to reality than any other accounts. Ever since the Jonestown tragedy, statements by ex-members turned out to be more accurate than those of apologists and NRM researchers. The reality revealed in the cases of People's Temple
, Rajneesh International
, Vajradhatu, the Nation of Yahweh
, the Branch Davidians
, the Faith Assembly, Aum Shinrykio
, the Solar Temple
, or Heaven's Gate
is much more than unattractive; it is positively horrifying. In every case of NRM disasters over the past 50 years, starting with Krishna Venta (Beit-Hallahmi, 1993), we encounter a hidden world of madness and exploitation in a totalitarian, psychotic, group, whose reality is actually even worse than detractors' allegations.
Like the Peoples Temple, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God did not become a cult ''literally overnight.'' There were warnings, including ex-member and intelligence reports.
Authorities have arrested a local government official after President Yoweri Museveni last week ordered an inquiry into reports that local administrators ignored warnings about the cult.
Internal Affairs Minister Edward Rugumayo said police had arrested the Rev. Amooti Mutazindwa, an assistant district commissioner in southwest Uganda, for allegedly suppressing an intelligence report that suggested the cult posed a security threat.
''Some intelligence officers filed reports saying that this is a dangerous group, but at one level it was not forwarded, it was just ignored,'' Museveni told the BBC late Wednesday during a visit to Britain.
Earlier questions of Ugandan cult's activities were ignored, some say, CNN, Mar. 30, 2000
Let's hope that in the aftermath of the Uganda cult tragedy, authorities and individuals will learn to recognize cult danger signs, pay attention to ex-member testimonies, and reject the misguided propaganda of cult apologists.
Those who, on the other hand, fail to recognize that religious freedom comes with responsibilities may not only turn out to be neglicent and ill-informed, but culpable as well.
» Background information on Uganda
» What is a cult?
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