At Least 235 Die in Uganda Cult Suicide

By Gavin Pattison

MBARARA - (Reuters) - At least 235 members of a millennium cult, including dozens of children, are believed to have died by mass suicide in a blazing church in southwestern Uganda.

Expecting the end of the world, followers of the obscure ''Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God" locked themselves in the church in the small town of Kanungu at breakfast time on Friday, police said on Saturday.

After several hours of chanting and singing, they set the church on fire, taking their own lives in the world's second biggest mass suicide of recent times.

Police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi, who visited the scene 320 km (200 miles) southwest of the capital Kampala, said all 235 registered members of the sect had probably perished in the fire and unregistered new arrivals may also have died.

He said police were having difficulty counting bodies burned beyond recognition.

``There were about 235 registered (cult members) but there are likely to be more killed in the fire -- ladies, children and men," Mugenyi said.

Led By Excommunicated Priests And Nuns

Cult leaders, who included three excommunicated priests and two excommunicated nuns, taught that the world would end in the year 2000. Their followers dressed in a uniform of white, green and black robes.

``Prior to this incident their leader told believers to sell off their possessions and prepare to go to Heaven," Mugenyi said, adding that the police were treating the incident as both suicide and murder because children were involved.

``Definitely it is both because there were a big number of children who were led there by their parents," he said.

He said the wooden-framed windows of the church appeared to have been boarded up and there was no sign of a struggle. The bodies -- burned beyond recognition -- lay in the center of the shell of the building.

``People said they heard some screaming but it was all over very quickly," he said, adding that locals had also heard an explosion.

He said the corpses had been left where they lay for forensic experts to examine on Sunday.

The church is 40 km (25 miles) north of Rwanda, where 800,000 people were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide, and 15 km (10 miles) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where armies of six African states have been sucked into a messy civil war.

Byword For Horrors

A former British 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" sect.

The cult's leaders were charged with rape, kidnapping and illegal confinement.

The largest mass suicide of recent times took place in 1978 when a paranoid U.S. pastor, the Reverend Jim Jones, led 914 followers to their deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink.

Cult members who refused to swallow the liquid were shot. Jones had carved a sign over his altar at Jonestown, reading ''Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it."

In recent years there have been several smaller group suicides in Europe and North America, three of them involving the Solar Temple, an international sect that believes death by ritual suicide leads to rebirth.