Professors discuss Church's responsibility in mass murder by
By MARIBEL MOREY
Several hundred members of a doomsday cult in Uganda died in what appeared to be a mass murder at the hand of its main leader, a former Catholic priest named Kibweteere.
After he was suspended from ministry as a priest and later expelled from the Catholic Church for his radical beliefs, Kibweteere began his cult, The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Com-mandments.
Although this sect is radical, he had followers.
"At the beginning, there were a few priests and nuns who followed him," said Father Patrick Gaffney, who spent two years teaching social science in Uganda and is chair of anthropology and associate professor at the Kroc Institute.
After the radical side of Kibweteere's ministry surfaced, many followers left the movement, but many stayed.
"These are the responses of the bulk of followers in search of meaning, solidarity and what religion offers — guidance in a predatorial society," Gaffney said. "The Catholic Church cannot penetrate very deeply [in Ugandan society] because of the totality of the services desired. The gap is in what is available [in the Church] and what's wanted," Gaffney said.
So many Ugandans need the services available from the Church, but there are not enough resources to meet all the need, according to Gaffney. In a religious sect, people's needs can also be served.
"[Kibweteere] began schools, clinics and gave free education. His approach was a more realistic answer to their needs," said Charles Muwunga, a Kroc Scholar from Kampala, Uganda.
Although Gaffney said that the Church could not have reached so many people, Muwunga said the Catholic Church is part of the problem.
"When the priest [Kibweteere] was discovered, the Catholic Church decided to dismiss him. This is not the solution," Muwunga said. "The Church should have taken the time to understand [Kibweteere]."
The cult offered Ugandans education, economic security and a sense of community, experts said.
"When people are very poor and lack needs, religious groups release the economic strain as the group receives money from the West," Muwunga said. Christians in England and the United States support some of these groups or churches, he added.
When people belong to a smaller group, they are able to express themselves freely without the hierarchical aspect of mainstream churches and a dictatorial regime.
"With a political movement system, people do not have the avenues of displacing their views," said Muwunga.
While Gaffney predicted this catastrophe as a reaction against society, Muwunga stressed the significance of the dictatorial regime and the rigidity of the Catholic Church in Uganda.
There are two aspects of a church, "the Church as an institution and Church as a people of God, the ordinary Christian," Muwunga said. "The gap between the two [aspects of the Church] is very evident — too wide."
Finding reasons for Kibweteere's appeal to hundreds of Ugandans, Gaffney and Muwunga believe that religion is extremely powerful.
"This is the power of ideology. The power of religious ideology is one of the best ways of mobilizing people," Muwunga said.
"Distortion of religion can manipulate people like ourselves," Gaffney said.
Although Kibweteere's sect may have been the result of political, economic and religious factors within Uganda, the mass deaths of sect followers has occurred in the United States as well.
"These are not strange phenomenon in the United States. These are very familiar phenomenon to us if we're willing to look at out own social settings," said Gaffney.
With the knowledge that this was a distorted group, governmental involvement in religious activities is now in question.
"My suspicion is that the government will probably have more interest in these groups," Gaffney said. "The problem is that most of these groups are more beneficial, except for this perverse group."
The government should be more involved with religious groups, Muwunga said. "The government mechanism that overlooks the activities of these organizations need to be conscious of the issue of religious fundamentalism."
However, Muwunga and Gaffney hold the same fear that the government will use this occasion to overpower the Church in Uganda.
"Lots of government officials are not examples of human virtue. How do we not know if they are going to take over religious institutions?" Gaffney questioned.
The economic issues cannot be altered quickly, but the religious and governmental dilemmas should be addressed, according to Muwunga.
"The Church should learn that dismissing priests that have made mistakes is not the solution," said Muwunga. "Look at the implications beyond the actions."
The Church should stay away from the hierarchical framework in Uganda and become more sensitive to the needs of the people, Muwunga said.
"This problem is a sign that the Church needs to revive itself. Something is wrong with the system. People are leaving to [join] more of these Pentecostal churches. Why?" Muwunga questioned.
Instead of changing the Church's structure, Gaffney places this issue on an international level.
"This is a phenomenon that we don't understand at home and we'll have a difficult time understanding it abroad," Gaffney said.
Muwunga and Gaffney believe the government should take a role to prevent such mass problems as the one in Uganda, but much of the problem lies within the government itself.
"One of the reasons it was not reported was because some of the government leaders were in the cult," said Gaffney.
While Muwunga places more emphasis on the Church's need for change, Gaffney believes that the government needs to structure local governance more effectively. Both, however, fear that the government will use this occasion to control religious groups especially given the Catholic Church's influence within the country.
All News Stories for Monday, April 10, 2000