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03/31/2000

Associated Press

KABUMBA, Uganda - Ugandan police revised the number of deaths linked to a Christian doomsday sect to 924 today, surpassing the 1978 Jonestown tragedy and making it one of the largest cult-related killings in history.

Investigators have yet to search a fifth cult compound believed to hold more victims. They canceled today's search of the site, deep in a rainforest near the Ruwenzori Mountians along the Congolese border, until they have the proper equipment, said police spokesman Eric Naigambi.

The death toll rose after police re-estimated those killed in the March 17 church fire that first revealed the deadly activities of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

Authorities initially reported at least 330 charred bodies inside the ruins of the makeshift church in Kanunga. Today, they said they had confirmed at least 530 deaths in what was believed to have been a gasoline-fueled inferno inside the sealed church.

Subsequent searches of three other sect compounds unearthed mass graves yielding victims apparently killed after the cult's Dec. 31 deadline for the world to end. Some of the victims appeared to have been knifed or strangled. Hundreds were children.

The toll surpasses the November 1978 Peoples Temple tragedy. The Jonestown mass suicide and killings claimed 913 lives in the jungles of Guyana, including that of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, journalists and a handful of defectors shot to death as they tried to board a flight out of the jungle.

Ugandan police are pursuing international arrest warrants for Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde and three other suspected cult leaders. It's not clear if any or all escaped the mass graves and the inferno that followed.

Who led the cult and whether they escaped with the wealth they amassed from cult members remain key questions in the investigation.

While Mwerinde was officially only one of the cult's "12 Apostles," inside the sect she was known as "The Programmer" and her power was unchallenged, said Therese Kibwetere, Joseph Kibwetere's estranged wife.

"Whenever anything was to be done, it was Credonia," she said.

Joseph Kibwetere, 64, is believed by some of his family members to have perished in the church fire, although other reports have said he could have escaped. Mwerinde's whereabouts at the time of the fire are unknown.

Kibwetere, Mwerinde and other sect leaders had predicted that the world would end last Dec. 31. When that didn't happen, authorities believe members demanded the return of possessions they had surrendered to join the sect, rebelled and were slaughtered.

Mwerinde's former common-law husband Eric Mazima challenged her carefully cultivated image as a religious devotee. He said it was only after the couple's joint business went bankrupt that she claimed to have seen an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a cave in southwestern Ugandan.

Until then, he said, she ran a shop in Kanunga that sold banana beer and a fiery local liquor. Press accounts have frequently referred to her as a prostitute, but Mazima and residents say that while notoriously promiscuous, Mwerinde was not paid for sex.

The leadership of the Ten Commandments Movement was largely a family affair, Mazima said, with relatives of the 48-year-old Mwerinde serving as four of the sect's "12 Apostles."

Four months after leaving her husband, Mwerinde met Kibwetere in Nyamitanga, where he and his wife had gone to hear her testify about her visions.

Juvenal Mugambwa, Kibwetere's son, said Mwerinde told his father the Virgin Mary had directed her to Nyamitanga to find a man called "Kibwetere," who would take them to his home where they would spread her message to the world.

That evening, Kibwetere brought Mwerinde, her sister and two other friends home with him to Kabumba.

Within days, Kibwetere and his wife had moved into a room with Mwerinde and the three other women. Therese Kibwetere said she was denied any sexual contact with her husband. Mugambwa believes his father and Mwerinde had a sexual relationship.

According to Mugambwa and his mother, Mwerinde would explode in rages, beat Kibwetere's children and demand total obedience - all the while saying she spoke directly for the Virgin Mary.

After a few months, talking was banned in favor of sign language, Mugambwa said. Meals were cut from three to two, with two days of fasting each week. The house swelled with the movement's adherents, mothers were separated from their children.

Mwerinde often retired alone to a room to write and receive "programs from the Virgin Mary," Mugambwe says. She would then emerge with the declaration: "I've been receiving messages from God that the Virgin Mary is annoyed. People are sinning too much and God is going to end the world because of the sins."

Mugambwe said Mwerinde beat his sisters and forced 60 children to live in a 15-by-40-foot backyard shed. The windows were nailed shut and the children forced to sleep on the dirt floor. They frequently were infected with scabies. Mugambwa became her enemy.

"When I offered them sweets, they refused, making a sign that I was Satan," he said.

After three years of abuse, Kibwetere's extended family forced Mwerinde and the three women from the house. Kibwetere went with them.

They moved to Kanungu, Mwerinde's hometown, where Kibwetere donned a bishop's ring and church vestments. Kibwetere, an excommunicated Roman Catholic, never spoke to his family again.

Left behind on a wall mantel in Therese Kibwetere's home is a framed printed version of what she said was her husband's favorite prayer "Oh Lord God: Help me keep my big mouth shut until I know what I am talking about."

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