MARGARET WARNER: Investigators are continuing their search for bodies and clues at the compound of a religious cult where hundreds died in an apparent mass suicide last Friday. They perished in a blaze in a hilltop church in the remote village of Kanungu, about 217 miles southwest of the Ugandan capital of Kampala. The cult, called the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, was led by former Roman Catholic priests and nuns. To help us understand the story, we're joined by Shaka Ssali, managing editor for Voice of America's English language service to Africa. He was born in Uganda, and is now a U.S. citizen. And J. Gordon Melton, with the Department of Religious Studies at U.C.-Santa Barbara, and director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion. Welcome, gentlemen. The investigation is still ongoing but I know you've been talking to people back there, what can you tell us about the days leading up to this event and what indications there were that something was going to happen?
SHAKA SSALI, Voice of America: First of all I would like to say, Margaret, that I am profoundly honored to be on your program because I watch you very regularly. And I think you do a great job. I talked with a Ugandan journalist yesterday in Kampala, which is in Western Uganda, perhaps about 60 to 70 miles from where the incident occurred in Kanungu. And the gentleman who works for a Ugandan independent newspaper called the Monitor, had actually visited Kanungu. He had talked to a lot of people in the trading center. They call it a village. It is actually a trading center. He tells me that that there were a lot of people, for example, who told him there appeared to be some evidence that something sinister was afoot. They told him, for example, that some of the believers or members of the cult, had actually told some people in the trading center that they were supposed to give a party to the resident district commissioner of the area and that was supposed to be on Friday. That was exactly the day when we are told that they committed suicide. So it looks like there was some evidence, even though, of course one might say it was sort of Monday morning quarterbacking, because this is hindsight.
MARGARET WARNER: But I gather they did, many of them, sold their possessions or liquidated their -- I don't know-- their livestock, their holdings.
SHAKA SSALI: That is very true. He gave me the same information. And that is the sort of information that has been in fact corroborated by other people I've talked to at Kampala.
MARGARET WARNER: Now today, according to the wires, the authorities who had been calling it mass suicide now are beginning to suggest there might have been an element of murder in this. Tell us what you can about what is leading them in that direction.
SHAKA SSALI: Well, these are obviously theories. There is no question that we are probably having people saying different things. I don't think that anyone has what you'd call evidence so far except that what they are saying is based on the sort of interactions that they're getting from the different people they are talking with. I think we can safely perhaps view it in two categories at the moment, Margaret. I think we can agree, for example, that there is a very strong possibility that some of the followers may in fact have committed suicide just like we saw in the Jonestown massacre in Guyana back in 1978. But you also have, for example, more than 170 children. Some of them, in fact, most of them of course were under 18. So one has to wonder whether or not those kids actually may have given their consent in the dying.
MARGARET WARNER: Whether they can. Mr. Melton, tell us about this particular group, this movement for the-- I don't even have the exact title now-- the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in terms of its origins, its leaders, its belief system.
J. GORDON MELTON, Institute for Study of American Religion: This is a group that emerged in the end of the '80s, built around the apparition of the Virgin Mary to one of its leaders. It was a group that grew up in a very negative environment of the Edi Amin regime and the revolution in the next country, over in the Congo. As the group developed, they looked for a better world, which they had little reason to believe they were going to find in this world. And then they moved toward some very specific predictions that something cataclysmic was going to happen toward the end of last year. That did not occur, and plans were made to have something happen this year. And we are not real sure what, in the end, occurred. But we are certain that there were some murders that occurred this week and then that there have been this massive death, either a mass murder or a mass suicide, that occurred.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, is it absolutely determined that the leader was a former Roman Catholic priest who had been ex-communicated?
J. GORDON MELTON: Yes. Roman Catholicism is very, very strong in this area and all of the leaders of the movement were former leaders in the Roman Catholic Church, either priests, lay workers or nuns.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ssali, how widespread are break-away religious groups in Uganda and are they growing?
SHAKA SSALI: To be honest with you, I'm not probably as an expert as the professor from the University of California where I went to school by the way - except the campus was UCLA - but I do know, of course, that, as he said, perhaps because of the social, economic, political upheaval that began, as your writer pointed out, during the Edi Amin era, the Edi Amin camp back in 1971, people have been very frustrated. People have been frustrated, and he said again, the Catholic Church, definitely the Christian faith is very, very strong in the country. And there's no question that even as they grew up in your neighborhood, you knew pretty well that religion was a very, very powerful tool in terms of being an agent for social control. Obviously a pastor, a parish pastor in the neighborhood was very widely respected and officially when you talk to people who frankly are not as widely exposed, not as well educated so to speak in terms of the western context, you can expect them to follow someone who presents themselves and tells them that he has a couple of answers for some of the socioeconomic, political problems.
MARGARET WARNER: They also have a terrible AIDS problem in that part of Uganda, in that part of Africa, do they not?
SHAKA SSALI: They do too. We have to thank the Ugandan government frankly for having come out much earlier than perhaps a lot of other African countries because the story we get now is that the AIDS situation is probably much worse in Southern Africa.
MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that, Mr. Melton, about the appeal of these groups and the growth of these sects in Africa and in Uganda?
J. GORDON MELTON: Over the last years, particularly since the end of the Edi Amin regime, there have been a number of apocalyptic groups that have emerged in Uganda and in the surrounding areas. Over the last 50 years some 5,000 different groups have emerged across the southern half of Africa. So Uganda is not really unique in that regard. But what is unique in Uganda is the emergence of these apocalyptic groups that have been taking on revolutionary proportions. And the government has taken steps to suppress them, really seeing them as a threat to the government's authority.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. Explain that a little better.
J. GORDON MELTON: The religious movements arise looking for some hope for the future, and many of them have turned toward military action or some kind of social upheaval. This particular group took another course in that they have looked for an early... for another worldly salvation and have tried to find their way into a new life by leaving this world that they've found rather hopeless.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you. We have to leave it there, Mr. Melton and Mr. Ssali. Thank you very much.