K A M P A L A, Uganda, Feb. 14 — Father Dominic Kataribabo's house looked like any other under renovation — the work crew was busy fixing the sewage system and had already raised the roof. Neighbors sat beside the gate to the house and in the yard, watching children wearing rosaries pose for a picture.
But last year, 55 bodies were pulled from the house — part of a purge perpetrated by a Ugandan cult calling itself The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
By some estimates, as many as 1,000 people were found murdered by the cult across the country.
It was about this time last year that the cult started to implode after the apocalypse failed to arrive with the New Year as predicted.
The cult's teachings were based on messages the leaders claimed to receive from the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
They emphasized the restoration of the Ten Commandments and urged members to confess their sins in preparation for the end of the world on December 31, 1999.
But the end never came and questions were inevitably asked of the leaders. Payments to the "church" by members slowed dramatically until it was announced that the deadline for the end of the world had been extended by the Virgin Mary.
March 17 was set as the "new" doomsday and people arrived to pray. They were locked in a church and burned to death on the pretext that the Virgin Mary would deliver them from the end of the world "clothed in flames." In addition to the bodies in the church, investigators found bodies of followers buried all over the country.
Church leaders, including Kataribabo, are still believed to be on the run.
Uganda has many cults, says newspaper editor Charles Onyango-Obbo. Obbo is editor of The Monitor, a newspaper billed as Uganda's only independent daily.
"Every small town has got a small church, small sect, someone has set up shop there. There's much, much more than 200 [churches, cults and sects]."
Obbo says the expansion of cults in Uganda is symptomatic of the country's larger problems.
He said Ugandans faced frustrations with established churches and the government because both had been unable to meet the needs of people coping with multiple traumas dogging the country.
On the Up and Up
Despite being hailed as an up-and-coming power broker in East Africa, Uganda is still reeling from years of armed conflict, political killings, and AIDS. Most of its population is under 18.
For Obbo, there is a connection between Uganda's one-party state and the growth of churches.
"A one-party state creates a vacuum and something will fill it. Either some demagogue, some church … during Idi Amin's [dictator in the 1970s responsible for the deaths of 300,000 opponents] time it was football, it was sports, sports clubs became very big. And now we have a lot of what you see, what we call cultural fundamentalism," Obbo told ABCNEWS.com.
Obbo said that until the lives of the average Ugandan improved, they would continue to be attracted to churches.
"If you had political groups, if they were free, you'd have competition for people's attention and time. You'd have a lot of programs being sold to the people … other than churches."
The government, for its part, is trying to intervene when churches begin behaving like extremist cults.
In August, a United Methodist Church was closed. Reportedly, officials took action after learning parishioners were pressured into abandoning medication and cosmetics to spend their days in all-day prayer vigils in darkened rooms. And some "born-again" churches have come under fire for holding "night prayers" for the same reason — the potential for excess.
Bordered by Sudan to the north, Congo to the west, and Rwanda to the southwest, Uganda has a habit of making headlines as the kind of nation vaulting from one tragedy to another.
Perhaps the most recent spark for international attention was an outbreak of the Ebola virus last year.
It was in this uncertain climate that the Ten Commandments cult thrived and was able to convince people that the end of the world was imminent.
William Tayeebwa, a reporter who covered the story locally, says killings began when leaders panicked: Members sold their property and gave proceeds to the cult with the understanding that the apocalypse was nigh.
"Nineteen-ninety-nine ends and they did not see the end of the world. So then the people started agitating. 'Now what's happening? We are supposed to go to heaven, we are not going.' And then it was clear [to cult leaders] that these people were revolting and in order to bring down the revolt, these people had to arrange for the end of the world," Tayeebwa said.
Choosing the Right Path
Obbo breaks the religious spectrum in Uganda into three groups. The older, established churches, the independent churches and the alternative churches.
He says the established churches, like the Anglican and Catholic churches, have found themselves stuck in a rigid format, unable to compete with the smaller groups who are winning over their parishioners.
Even church leaders are jumping ship. Father Kataribabo, now on the run from authorities as the the second-in-command of the Ten Commandments cult, was a preacher in the Catholic Church and reportedly left when he failed to be promoted at a pace he found acceptable.
"In the west of Uganda, very few members of that church have been able to rise in the hierarchy of the church," says Obbo, "so dissidents from that movement, like Father Kataribabo, then go and say, 'there's nothing in this for us. If they cannot reward us, we must organize ourselves.'"
By contrast, independent and alternative churches can hardly find enough room to seat all their new members.
Kampala Pentecostal Church (KPC) and its Canadian preacher, for example, minister from a former theater on a prominent hill in the middle of the capital. Sundays it is packed to overflowing, the balcony filled and parishioners out back watching the service on television monitors.
But Obbo makes a distinction between KPC and other newer churches: KPC "targets middle class, successful, professionals. And it talks about how to make money, how to find yourself a nice husband, nice wife, how to have a happy time with your family, picnicking and things. So it's been able to combine — it's almost got an ecumenical undertone to it. It's been able to speak to people's material concerns, the bottom line, so to speak. And it's also spoken to spiritual issues, in a very very modern sense.
"The Pentecostal Church has got its own thing, proper church, air conditioning. So it's in a different league than the rest, the majority of the other churches, which are very, very aggressive, which commit miracles: The Miracle Center, The Healing Center, The Victory Center — these are very aggressive churches."
And the miracles being advertised are attractive: Speaking before a packed congregation at Redeemed of the Lord Evangelistic Church, one preacher says she was cured of AIDS when she was "born-again." Reverend Grace Kityo, from Faith Christian Churches, a sect of 50 churches he helped found, says, "I've seen people who have been with AIDS delivered by the Almighty power and now are free." He also claims he brought a boy back from the dead.
At Kataribabo's house, like many gated homes in Uganda, the walls of the perimeter fence are topped with broken glass. While the walls keep out unwanted scrutiny, the cults sweeping Uganda continue to entice vulnerable Ugandans with empty promises of a better life.