On March 17, 2000, the world was shocked by the news of a horrifying event that unfolded in Kanungu, a remote village in southwestern Uganda. The Kanungu cult massacre, also known as the Uganda cult massacre, remains one of the most devastating incidents of mass violence and religious extremism in modern history. This tragedy claimed the lives of over 700 followers of a religious cult known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
The origins of the Kanungu cult can be traced back to the early 1980s when Joseph Kibwetere, a former Catholic school teacher, established a religious group centered around a distorted interpretation of Christianity. Kibwetere, along with Credonia Mwerinde, a self-proclaimed prophetess, and other leaders, formed the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. The church grew rapidly, attracting vulnerable individuals seeking spiritual guidance and salvation.
Under the guise of piety and spiritual enlightenment, the church propagated a doomsday ideology, proclaiming that the end of the world was imminent. They preached strict adherence to the Ten Commandments as a means to secure salvation. The church also taught that to avoid damnation in the apocalypse, one had to strictly follow the Commandments. The emphasis on the Commandments was so strong that the group discouraged talking, for fear of breaking the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”, and on some days communication was only conducted in sign language.
The group’s teachings and practices were characterized by severe austerity, celibacy, and isolation from the outside world. Members of the church also wore matching uniforms and lived in a self-sustaining commune in Kanungu District, Uganda, with the group growing their own food.
As the new millennium approached preparations for the end mounted. In 1999, the state-owned New Vision newspaper ran an interview with a teenage member. He said, “The world ends next year. There is no time to waste. Some of our leaders talk directly to God. Any minute from now, when the end comes, every believer who will be at an as yet undisclosed spot will be saved.”
The leaders of the Kanungu cult embarked on a distressing course of action, urging their members to confess their sins, sell their material possessions, and bring the proceeds to them. Attempts were also made to bring former members back into the group. After the passing of 1 January 2000, without an apocalypse, many became disillusioned with the group.
Faced with waning faith and growing skepticism, the cult leaders sought to retain their control by designating another date for the apocalyptic event. March 17, 2000, was chosen as the new day of reckoning, and the leaders, as reported by The New York Times, declared that this event would occur “with ceremony and finality.”
Driven by escalating fear and the manipulative tactics employed by the cult leaders, a grim event unfolded in the village of Kanungu. Hundreds of cult members, including women and children, were enticed into the confines of the cult’s church building. Little did they know that their trust would lead them to an unimaginable and tragic fate.
What transpired within those walls remains haunting. After drinking and eating, the church building was set ablaze, trapping & killing all 530 members in attendance.
The windows and doors of the church had been purposely boarded up, transforming it into a deathtrap from which there was no escape. This sinister act, aimed at preventing people from leaving, ensured that the members were trapped within the burning structure, sealing their fate and cutting off any chance of survival.
In the aftermath of the tragic fire, law enforcement authorities initiated a comprehensive investigation into the properties associated with the cult in southern Uganda and discovered hundreds of bodies at sites across southern Uganda.
As the investigation unfolded and all sites were thoroughly searched, the police arrived at a final and devastating death toll. The number of lives lost reached a staggering 924, a horrifying testament to the scale of the tragedy and the ruthless actions perpetrated by the cult leaders and their accomplices.
Despite a thorough investigation, the authorities were unable to apprehend the church leaders involved in the incident, namely Joseph Kibwetere and Credonia Mwerinde. Their current whereabouts remain unknown, and no one has been prosecuted in connection with the massacre up to this present day.
The Kanungu cult massacre prompted soul-searching within Uganda and triggered a reassessment of the country’s religious landscape. The tragedy also served as a reminder of the dangers of blind faith and religious extremism.