Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God

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MOVEMENT FOR THE RESTORATION OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF GOD . On March 17, 2000, several hundred followers (estimates vary, but there may well have been more than three hundred, including seventy-eight children) of the Ugandan Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG) died in Kanungu, Uganda, when their church was burned, in what was alternately called a mass suicide or a homicide perpetrated by the movement's leaders. The subsequent discovery, in various locations, of mass graves containing the remains of people believed to be murdered (most of them stabbed) raised the death toll to 780 and possibly more, the largest such incident in recent history at that time.

The MRTCG, a fringe Catholic group, had been established among an epidemic of apparitions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in Catholic circles in Africa, most of them not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. These apparitions occurred during and after a series of famous apparitions in Kibeho, Rwanda, from 1981 to 1989. There, seven "seers" were encouraged and approved by the Catholic hierarchy. The apparitions that led to the formation of the MRTCG started in 1987, when a number of Catholics claimed to have had visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in southwestern Uganda after Specioza Mukantabana, a Rwandan girl who claimed a connection with Kibeho (although she was not one of the seven "approved" seers) moved in 1986 to the Ugandan diocese of Mbarara and later to the diocese of Masaka, starting a movement in Mbuye. Among the new Ugandan seers were Paul Kashaku (18901991) and his daughter Credonia Mwerinde (19522000), a barmaid with a reputation for sexual promiscuity. Mwerinde later claimed to be a former prostituteprobably a false claim and a conscious attempt to replicate the role of Mary Magdalene. Kashaku had a past as a visionary and claimed to have seen, as early as 1960, an apparition of his deceased daughter Evangelista.

Kashaku claimed to have had a particularly important vision in 1988, and he impressed, among others, Joseph Kibwetere (19312000), who claimed to have himself received visions since 1984. Kibwetere was a solid member of the Catholic community in Uganda. He had been a politician and a locally prominent member of the Catholic-based Democratic Party in the 1970s. Eventually, a community was established in Kibwetere's home in 1989. The newly formed group attempted to merge the movement with other "apparitionist" groups, including the one established in Mbuye by Mukantabana (a group that had been condemned by the local Catholic bishop). These attempts failed however. A group of twelve apostles (six of them women) was appointed, and Kibwetere became their leader after Kashaku's death in 1991.

The seers claimed to have seen Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in several different visions, which were heavily influenced by recognized Catholic apparitions, such as those at La Salette and Fatima. The visions were also influenced by unofficial Catholic sources, including the messages of the Italian visionary priest Father Stefano Gobbi, several visionaries based in the United States, and William Kamm ("Little Pebble"), a marginal Catholic prophet who claimed that he would eventually become pope. The messages of the seer's visions addressed typical Ugandan themes, such as the AIDS epidemic and government corruption.

Eventually, the village of Kanungu was designated ishayuriro rya Maria (rescue place for the Virgin Mary), and the seers moved there in 1994. The group converted to their prophetic visions a handful of Catholic priests and nuns, including Father Dominic Kataribaabo (19672000), a Ugandan Dominican priest who was educated in the United States. The MRTCG developed an archconservative brand of Catholicism, and some of its leaders and members were eventually excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church, although the priests were only suspended from their priestly functions rather than excommunicated. The MRTCG broke with the Ugandan Catholic Bishops on questions of reliability of apparitions (including their own), clerical garb, and the proper ways of taking communion. They regarded as licit only communion taken kneeling, and rejected the practice of the communicant taking the host in his or her hands. Unlike other Catholic traditionalist movements, however, the MRTCG did accept ecumenism and the new ritual of the Mass introduced after Vatican II. The MRTCG's Masses were celebrated in vernacular rather than Latin. The movement's publications strongly denied that the MRTCG was a new religious movement, and claimed that it was simply a conservative Catholic group. The Ugandan Catholic Bishops, however, concluded otherwise.

The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was legally incorporated with this name in 1994, and a boarding school was licensed until 1998, when the license was revoked by the government on the grounds that its teachings that were contrary to the Ugandan constitution. The government also expressed concern over breaches of public health regulations and possible mistreatment of children. In fact, the main message of the MRTCG was that the Ten Commandments had been distorted and needed to be restored in their full value. The third edition of the handbook A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times (1996), mainly written by Kataribaabo, proclaimed: "Ours is not a religion but a movement that endeavors to make the people aware of the fact that the Commandments of God have been abandoned, and it gives what should be done for their observance." Additional comments in the book about morality refer to themes common in traditionalist and other Catholic archconservative circles. For example, inappropriate dress is seen as a sign of immorality in the statement: "girls prefer wearing men's trousers to wearing their own dresses." The message was also apocalyptic:

All of you living on the Planet, listen to what I'm going to say: When the year 2000 is completed, the year that will follow will not be year 2001. The year that will follow shall be called Year One in a generation that will follow the present generation; the generation that will follow will have few or many people depending on who will repent.The Lord told me that hurricanes of fire would rain forth from heaven and spread over all those who would not have repented.

It is worth noting that these MRTCG visions are very similar to those of the church-approved Kibeho visionaries, who saw rivers of blood, great fires, and decapitated corpses. The Kibeho seers warned, on the basis of what the Virgin Mary had told them, that "there isn't much time left in preparing for the Last Judgment. We must change our lives, renounce sin. Pray and prepare for our own deaths and for the end of the world" (Maindron, 1985, p. 107). Of course in Kibeho, church approval also meant church control, and the apocalyptic elements were given approved and centuries-old metaphorical interpretations. But once the MRTCG left the Catholic fold, the group acted out some of the Kibeho images literally.

The approximately five thousand members of the MRTCG (the movement had branches in several small Ugandan towns) were said to avoid sex and to rarely talk for fear of breaking the commandment about not bearing false witness, and they were reported to have developed a sign language (reports of their unusual behavior may have been exaggerated after the tragedy). Although most members were former Catholics, the group also included some from the African Initiated Churches (AIC, formerly called African Independent Churches) and from local spiritualist groups.

The MRTCG was considered to be among the less violent local apocalyptic movements in Uganda. However, the group did predict the end of the world for December 31, 1999, later revising the date and claiming that on March 17, 2000, the Virgin Mary would appear and take members to heaven. The prophetic failure may have induced a number of members to doubt the leaders and ask for the return of money they had contributed. This development (similar to what occurred in the Order of the Solar Temple prior to the homicides and suicides of 1994) may have created a category of "traitors" who were killed in various waves prior to March 17 and whose bodies have been found in several mass graves. On the other hand, the mass graves remain in many respects a mystery, and it is also possible that some "weak" members, regarded as not fully prepared to commit suicide, were killed without being regarded as "traitors."

Shortly before March 17, Kibwetere wrote to his wife Theresa (not a member of the MRTCG), urging her to carry on the movement after his departure. A nun visited nearby villages announcing the coming of the Virgin Mary for March 17. Apparently, while some members did know about the suicide plan, others were simply told about an imminent supernatural event and did not expect to die. As in the case of the Solar Temple (and notwithstanding the obvious differences) there were three categories of victims: those who knew about the suicide and regarded it as a "rational" way to escape a doomed world (a minority); those who expected to go to heaven but did not know how; and the "traitors" who doubted Kibwetere after the prophetic failure. The latter may have been assassinated before the church fire. The presence of three, rather than two, categories of victims creates a continuum between homicide and suicide.

Among the leaders, Kataribaabo was originally identified among the dead, but later the Ugandan government issued a warrant for his arrest, along with warrants for Kibwetere and Mwerinde. Dental records for the three are unavailable, and it has been impossible to determine whether they died in the fire (as their families believe) or escaped with the movement's money (as some witnesses suggest and the Ugandan government apparently believes). The idea that the leaders were con artists who escaped with the money was also the explanation preferred by the media and some members of the law enforcement community in the Solar Temple case, before dental records proved this theory wrong. Most scholars believe that the leadership of the MRTCG died in the 2000 fire, and the leaders' behavior prior to these events supports this conclusion.

Uganda is home to hundreds of religious movements, many of them apocalyptic and millenarian. This is not surprising since Uganda experienced a virtual apocalypse during the bloody regime of Idi Amin Dada (19252003) and given the atrocities of the civil war. Followers of apocalyptic movements in Uganda expect justice to come with the end of the world, not through politics. Scholarship about Uganda's apocalyptic movements warns against applying Western models to situations peculiar to that country. In fact, conflict between "cults" and the national army, as well as protest and violence (even suicide), are often manifestations of preexisting ethnic, tribal, and political conflicts.

In general, tragedies in Uganda also confirm that violence connected to new religious movements erupts because of a combination of factors internal and external to the groups. In the MRTCG case, internal factors included the personalities of the leaders, their literal interpretations of prophecies about the end of the world (as exemplified by Kibeho and Gobbi), and the crises within society and the Roman Catholic Church. Once dissociated from the church's time-tested metaphorical interpretations, apocalyptic revelations may be taken literally and acted upon. External factors include the difficult situation prevailing in Uganda, particularly in areas ravaged by disaster, famine, and civil war.

After the tragedy of Kanungu, some African governments reacted strongly against "cults." The risk is that they will engage in witch-hunts, failing to acknowledge that most apocalyptic movements throughout the world are law-abiding and nonviolent. In Africa, as elsewhere, claims that all millenarian and apocalyptic movements are heading for mass suicide are grossly inaccurate. These assumptions may in fact amplify tension and deviance, thus operating as self-fulfilling prophecies, helping to cause the very evils people claim they want to prevent.

See Also

Cults and Sects; New Religious Movements, overview article, article on New Religious Movements and Millennialism, article on New Religious Movements and Violence; Temple Solaire.


Kabazzi-Kisirinya, S., R. K. Nkurunziza, and Banura Gerard Deusdedit, eds. The Kanungu Cult-Saga: Suicide, Murder, or Salvation? Kisubi, Uganda, 2000. An interpretation by local scholars.

Maindron, Gabriel. Apparizioni a Kibeho: Annuncio di Maria nel cuore dell'Africa. Brescia, Italy, 1985. A primary source for the apparitions in Kibeho.

Mayer, Jean François. "Field Notes: The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God." Nova Religio 5 (2001): 203210. A scholarly account and interpretation.

Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times. 3d ed. Karuhinda, Rukungiri; Rubiziri, Bushenyi, Uganda, 1996. The only book published by the movement.

Massimo Introvigne (2005)

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