Uganda at the forefront of Africa's boom in evangelical Christianity

Kampala, Uganda - On a warm Sunday morning last month, in a spartan university lecture hall, a few hundred well-dressed young men and women sat mesmerized as a 25-year-old minister slowly worked them into a frenzy.

"Uganda belongs to Jesus!" David Othieno proclaimed as he strutted in front of the podium in a neat charcoal suit. The worshippers, gathered at Makerere University, a prestigious school nestled in the hills of this leafy East African capital, erupted in cheers and song. Behind the fresh-faced minister, a drummer struck up a vigorous beat.

Evangelical Christianity is flourishing in Uganda, leading a boom across Africa that's attracting millions of converts each year and changing the social and political landscape of the world's poorest continent.

Nearly two hundred years after the first wave of missionaries arrived in Africa, Christianity is growing faster here than anywhere else in the world. There are more than 390 million Christians in sub-Saharan Africa today, up from 117 million in 1970, a trend due mostly to evangelism, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in South Hamilton, Mass.

Critics dismiss it as a new form of Western colonialism, but Christian leaders say Africa's evangelical movement is driven largely by Africans themselves.

"There's a lot in Africans' circumstances that makes Christianity really resonate with them," said Jonathan Bonk, the editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research in New Haven, Conn. "It's a faith of hope for poor people."

In Uganda, a lush but largely poor country about the size of Oregon, evangelical leaders estimate that at least one-fifth of the 28 million people are born-again Christians. Their number includes leading government officials, populist young pastors, DJs and other celebrities, and high school and college students.

Uganda's most prominent born-again Christian is the president's wife, Janet Museveni, who was elected to Parliament in February.

Ugandan evangelicals have forged close ties with the powerful evangelical movement in the United States. Backed by American contributions, Ugandan churches play a growing humanitarian role, building schools, health clinics and orphanages, including in the impoverished northern half of the country, which has been wracked by civil war for the past two decades.

Aid agencies "come and phase out, but there's a sense that the church is here to stay," said Fred Ssekyewa, 41, the pastor of Gaba Community Church, which is in a lakeside slum outside Kampala.

The church gets nearly all its funding from American churches such as Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, Calif., Ssekyewa said. With the money, his church has launched a health clinic and AIDS education programs for its mostly poor congregation.

Like their American counterparts, Uganda's churches are a strong political force. Evangelicals helped shape Uganda's controversial, U.S.-backed anti-AIDS strategy, which emphasizes abstinence over condom use.

As a result, Uganda is one of the biggest recipients of money under President Bush's global AIDS-relief program - $239 million in the past two years - which earmarks money for abstinence programs.

First lady Museveni is an outspoken supporter of abstinence; she's led abstinence marches and has called for a nationwide census to count the number of virgins.

Evangelical churches are springing up across the country, from cavernous, modern buildings in Kampala to simple shacks in rural areas. Foreign visitors sometimes are accosted on the streets of Kampala and asked whether they've "been saved."

"There's a definite sense that the movement has grown in Uganda," said Martin Ssempa, the 38-year-old pastor of Makerere Community Church, on the campus of Makerere University, where the service was last month.

Speaking by phone from Las Vegas, where he was on one of his frequent U.S. tours, Ssempa said evangelicals' response to the threat of AIDS in Uganda had helped to fuel the church's rise.

In the 1990s, Uganda had one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection, about 15 percent. Churches, backed by the government, launched an innovative program to educate Ugandans about the disease. By 2002 the HIV rate was down to 6 percent.

Now, thanks largely to Ssempa's 8-year-old church, Uganda's leading university has become a hotbed of Christianity, with more than 50 established prayer groups.

"My direction is to raise leaders for Christianity," Ssempa said, "and the best leaders are found on college campuses."

The aggressive push by evangelists such as Ssempa to recruit believers doesn't sit well with leaders of the country's other major religions - chiefly Islam, which claimed 12 percent of the population in a 2002 census.

Although most Ugandans belong to Christian denominations, Muslim leaders don't like it when President Yoweri Museveni calls Uganda a Christian nation. And they often complain about evangelists using the airwaves - evangelicals own no fewer than seven FM radio stations and two television stations - to denigrate Islam.

"Some of them go to the extreme," said Sam Ahmad Ssentongo, the imam of the Makerere University Mosque. "Evangelicals will fabricate a lot of lies against Islam."

At the Makerere church service last month, for nearly an hour, Othieno railed against Islam, Hinduism and foreign business interests in Uganda. They had "dedicated this nation to evil," he said repeatedly, as the young congregation murmured its approval.

"For Indians, Chinese, South Africans," Othieno cried, "we are confessing on behalf of all foreigners who have dedicated this nation to their gods - it is wicked!"

Interviewed afterward, Othieno said he hadn't meant to offend anyone. But the teachings of Islam, Hinduism and Uganda's tribal religions "go against what the Bible teaches," he said.

In the 1970s, under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, a Muslim, many of Uganda's Christians were persecuted and thousands fled the country. In recent years, with Christianity flourishing under a sympathetic government, Christians and Muslims are increasingly at odds on social issues.

Last year, a leading imam threatened holy war over a proposed law that prohibited a man from taking a second wife without the consent of his first one.

Elsewhere in Africa, Christian-Muslim feuds have been worse. Last month in Nigeria - another country in which evangelical Christianity is growing rapidly - more than 120 people died in a week of rioting over the controversial Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Even in relatively stable Uganda, there's a fear of religious violence, said Stephen Mugabi, the secretary of the African Evangelical Alliance, based in Kampala.

"Uganda is traditionally an open society in terms of faith," Mugabi said, "but of late you hear many inflammatory things."