MITYANA, UGANDA — When Sulait Kintu’s wife and five children went missing for two days last year, he had his suspicions about their whereabouts. Kintu is Muslim, but his wife, a Christian, had become a follower of Pastor Samuel Kalibala, a former primary school teacher. Locals and authorities say Kalibala is a “cult leader” who discourages his followers from sending their children to school or vaccinating them against COVID-19.
The farmer and driver of a boda boda, or motorbike taxi, says before the disappearance, his wife had already stopped taking their children to school. “She said education was useless because everyone was soon dying and that what mattered most was serving God because soon, they were going to heaven,” Kintu says.
He went to the pastor’s house, about 100 meters (328 feet) from his home in Naama village in Mityana district, looking for them. Kalibala’s house was empty, and Kintu panicked. He knew of incidents where religious leaders with similar doctrines had led followers to their deaths, so he filed a report with the police.
Racheal Kawala, Mityana regional police spokesperson, says the police had received similar reports about other missing families in the same village and had been looking for the pastor.
This apprehension about the continued proliferation of “fake pastors” and “cults” in Uganda, where about 82% of the population is Christian, is one that Kintu shares with many others in the community. They are making renewed calls for the government to regulate religious organizations, some of which they say are out to exploit Ugandans.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
These religious groups have been an issue in Uganda for a while. In 2016, the government intervened in the activities of religious groups officials identified as cults. They arrested 10 members of the Njiri Nkalu group — which local officials in Mayuge district consider a cult — for refusing to allow their children to be immunized, based on religious grounds. Police officers and officials from the health ministry forcibly entered members’ homes and immunized about 200 children. In 2014, the government arrested hundreds of alleged members of groups officials deemed cults because of their opposition to the national identification card registration and census efforts.
Although the government has tried to regulate these religious groups, officials have faced pushback. In 2016, when the Ugandan Directorate of Ethics and Integrity proposed the National Policy on Religious and Faith-Based Organizations, a law that requires religious leaders to receive formal training before operating a church, mainstream religious groups like the Anglican Church of Uganda and the Roman Catholic Church welcomed it. Some smaller churches commonly known as “born-again churches” in Uganda were concerned that this would hinder their freedom of worship, according to research by Alexander Paul Isiko, a lecturer at Kyambogo University. The draft is in public opinion phases.
Rogers Atwebembeire sees the proliferation of these religious organizations as a symptom of the country’s poverty, which some religious leaders are out to exploit. The East Africa regional director of the Africa Centre for Apologetics Research, a Christian organization that raises awareness about cults, says that when people are facing dire situations, they are most vulnerable to “cult-evangelism,” which he defines as “a group of people with faith teachings closely related to the original, but in sense [have] moved away from the original intentions.”
“A pastor who tells you to give up your land, your car or any property, people who say children shouldn’t go to school or get immunized because the world is ending soon exhibit characteristics of cult leaders,” he says.
Assimwe, an artist who prefers to use his surname for fear of stigma, knows how easy it is for some religious leaders to exploit their followers. He was 13 when he joined the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Kanungu district. The church was led by Joseph Kibwetere, an alleged cult leader.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Assimwe says Kibwetere convinced him and other followers that the world was ending. There was the promise of heaven, but only if they relinquished their belongings to the church leader, he adds. He immediately went to his mother to ask for goats and chickens.
“My mother didn’t buy the going-to-heaven story that I believed at the time. [She] instead chased me away,” he says. With nothing to offer the pastor, Assimwe didn’t go back to church. He considers himself lucky because a week later, more than 500 of Kibwetere’s believers died in a fire in the church leader’s camp. Kibwetere has been on the run from authorities since the incident.
Lack of regulation is a reason such religious organizations keep sprouting, says John Baptist Nambeshe, a member of Parliament in Manjiya county, Bududa district. He sees an urgent need for the government to ensure that religious leaders have some training in theology before setting up a church. In fact, in 2017, Nambeshe tried to table a bill that would ensure such regulations, but many of his colleagues shunned it, citing freedom of worship.
While anyone in Uganda can start a church, the government requires new religious groups to register with the National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organizations, according to a United States Department of State report. The reason for this, says human rights lawyer Komakech Kilama, is that churches are considered nonprofits, as some provide public services such as health and education.
But many religious organizations, especially small ones, lack even the basic registration requirements, such as a permanent address, Kilama says. He sees regulation as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it will push out small churches that don’t have resources. On the other hand, it will address the issue of exploitative religious leaders.
The Uganda Registration Services Bureau, the National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organizations and the Directorate of Ethics and Integrity did not respond to requests for comment.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Alex Busigye, a pastor at Shalom Miracle church in Mityana district who allegedly groomed Kalibala, says a move to regulate religious organizations would infringe on the right to freedom of worship, which is guaranteed in Article 29 of Uganda’s Constitution.
“What government should do is to be more vigilant in its intelligence to look out for fake religious leaders who might harm their followers,” he says.
Mariam Jessica Mukiibi, a local leader at Naama village ward, says the onus is on the national government, as local leaders cannot set out policies and guidelines within which religious leaders should operate.
But Brian, who prefers to go just by his first name for fear of stigmatization by community members, doesn’t understand the fuss around religious leaders or the need for regulation. He joined Kalibala’s church in early 2021. “Pastor Kalibala is a good man,” he says. “He hasn’t hurt anyone, and I don’t think he intends to hurt anyone.”
Brian is 32 with no children, but he says if he had children he would have listened to his pastor, whose knowledge about the world he considers “God-given.” To him, the church is not a cult, but a place led by a pastor who wants the best for his followers.
Kalibala has since been arrested and charged with trafficking, says Kawala, the Mityana regional police spokesperson. But his followers still gather in one another’s homes without the church leader, including Kintu’s wife, who returned with their children a few days after Kintu filed a police report. But he continues to worry that history might repeat itself.
For John Mulodi, the worst has already happened. He says his 4-year-old daughter was killed in a 2021 ritual sacrifice by a cult pastor and the pastor’s wife. Mulodi had rented out his garage to the couple as a residence, but a few months later, he says, the pastor turned it into a church, where the alleged killing happened.