KAMPALA, Uganda (RNS) – On a recent Sunday morning, hundreds of worshippers gathered at Jehovah Pentecostal Church in Kisenyi, a slum on the outskirts of Kampala, to pray against their government’s intensifying crackdown against opposition politicians, journalists and supporters.
Pastor David Mukasa condemned, in particular, the brutal treatment of Ugandan lawmaker and popular Afropop singer Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, also known as Bobi Wine, who had been detained by the government and allegedly tortured before seeking medical help in the United States last week.
“I’m very deeply concerned about the brutal torture inflicted on the people of Uganda including (Bobi Wine),” he said. “This shows how our leaders are merciless and inhuman(e). We need God to save our country from such leadership.”
But Mukasa could have added religious leaders to the list of those caught up in the crackdown. Uganda’s government is trying to prevent faith groups from becoming another voice in the country to speak out against President Yoweri Museveni’s human rights violations.
Last month, Museveni’s aides warned religious leaders not to interfere with government matters.
“They should leave the matters to the police, the army and other security organs,” said Persis Namuganza, state minister for lands. “If religious leaders have started investigating how tension rose on the eve of the by-election, then what will police, the army and other security organs commissioned for crime investigation do?”
Earlier this year, after religious leaders criticized the constitutional amendment that allows Museveni, 73, to rule for life, Museveni warned religious leaders.
“The religious leaders have been provoking us and me in particular. It should stop,” he said in February while commissioning a new chapel in western Uganda. “Instead of working for the independence of Africa, they are always in cahoots with foreigners – encouraging the latter to meddle in our affairs. I don’t want people to lecture me about what to do for Uganda.”
Worshippers attend a Pentecostal church service in Eastern Uganda, near the border with Kenya, on July 21, 2018. RNS photo by Doreen Ajiambo
Last month, while campaigning for a parliamentary by-election, Wine was allegedly detained and tortured by armed forces on grounds of illegal possession of firearms. Observers said he was targeted because of his harsh criticism of Museveni.
“They pulled my manhood and squeezed my testicles while punching me with objects I didn’t see,” Wine said in a statement from the United States. “They wrapped me in a thick piece of cloth and bundled me into a vehicle and they did to me unspeakable things in that vehicle.”
Rights groups have long accused Uganda’s leaders of detaining opposition figures without legal justification, intimidation of the country’s media, beatings and other forms of torture by security personnel to help Museveni consolidate his power. Before ascending to power in 1986, Museveni had led a bloody civil war for six years that left thousands dead.
Faith leaders who criticize the president face threats of intimidation and violence.
“We are afraid to speak our minds or protest. If you speak bad things about the government then you are arrested. If you protest you are shot dead by police. Only God can save Uganda. We need to keep on praying,” said Richard Mayega, a student at Makerere University in Kampala.
The Uganda Joint Christian Council has called for the establishment of an independent panel of inquiry by Parliament to investigate the recent violence and other cases where citizens have been arrested and tortured without trial.
“The truth regarding what sparked off the violence on the eve of the by-election can only be established by an independent panel of inquiry established by the Parliament of Uganda or through a judicial process presided over by the ordinary courts of law,” the Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Constantine Mbonabingi, executive secretary of the Uganda Joint Christian Council, told the press.
The Inter-Religious Council of Uganda also condemned the violence and urged Museveni to respect the law of the country and tolerate those with different political orientations.
“We should all remember that violence begets violence and it is ultimately a lose-lose situation for all parties,” the group said last week. “The government should ensure that the members of Parliament, their supporters and other persons arrested during the by-election are treated with dignity in accordance with their rights and that they access justice through open courts of law.”
Mukasa also said Museveni was acting dishonestly. “We love our country, but the president should follow the law,” he said. “We don’t want to see our people being killed by our own security officers and detained without trial. We don’t want more blood to be shed.”
A health care worker takes the body temperature of a man in Mangina, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Aug 8, 2018. Health experts began Ebola vaccinations in Congo’s northeast village of Mangina for the latest deadly outbreak. (AP Photo/Al-hadji Kudra Maliro)
Thousands of faithful in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are staying home from church services to avoid contracting or spreading Ebola.
“We are staying in our homes. We can’t go to church and worship together as Christians,” said Daniel Sango, who spoke to Religion News Service by phone from Mangina, 24 miles southwest of the town of Beni in North Kivu. “People are afraid of contracting the virus. Many are listening to the gospel of God on radio stations.”
Thousands of churches remain closed in the country’s eastern regions as the Ebola virus continues to spread. Since August, when the latest outbreak was declared in eastern Congo, 137 confirmed or probable cases have been registered, including 92 deaths, according to the country’s health officials.
In a bid to contain the virus, religious leaders and officials have urged residents not to meet in big numbers.
Earlier this year, three Ebola patients left a treatment center in the northwestern city of Mbandaka and attended a church service, where they came into contact with other congregants. The three patients were later found dead in their homes.
“People should not meet in big number either in church or elsewhere,” said pastor Sarah Kalenga of the Church of Jesus Christ in a telephone interview from Mangina. “We are finding ways to end the spread of the virus. People should pray from their houses and God will answer those prayers. We are trusting in God, but we should not tempt him.”
Ebola, which is spread through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of those infected, is highly contagious and can kill within days. The virus returned to Congo only days after a previous outbreak that killed 29 people was declared over in July.
The Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons
Two new cases were reported in Butembo last week, according to UNICEF.
“Butembo is an important commercial city and has nearly one million inhabitants. So there is a real risk the virus could spread quickly in such a large population center,” Gianfranco Rotigliano, UNICEF representative, said in a statement last week. “The number of confirmed Ebola cases in Butembo remains limited, but we have to ensure that everything is being done now to ensure that the outbreak is controlled at this early stage.”
Religious leaders in May suspended sacraments during the Ebola outbreak to help protect worshippers from contracting the disease.
“Although Masses are continuing, sacraments such as baptism and confirmation have had to be suspended,” Monsignor Jean-Marie Bomengola, secretary of the church’s Social Communications Commission, told Catholic News Service during the summer.
The Rev. Lucien Ambunga, a Catholic pastor, was quarantined after being infected with Ebola in Mbandaka town. The priest survived after being taken to a treatment center in Bikoro, a small town in northwestern Congo. The government said the priest became infected while praying as he placed his hands on an Ebola patient in his parish.
Measures have now been taken to help prevent the spread of Ebola virus in this central Africa republic. The government and the World Health Organization said an Ebola vaccination program is underway for high-risk populations in the eastern part of the country, including North Kivu.
“Vaccines are an important tool in the fight against Ebola,” said Oly Ilunga, the country’s minister of health. “This is why it has been a priority to move them rapidly into place to begin protecting our health workers and the affected population.”
A health care worker wears virus protective gear at a treatment center in Bikoro, Democratic Republic of Congo, on May 13, 2018. (AP Photo/John Bompengo)
Officials are doing what they can to encourage locals’ cooperation with prevention measures.
“We have decided to make treatment free to remove the financial barrier that could dissuade the population from going to the health center,” said Bathe Tambwe, an official in charge of coordinating the fight against the disease in eastern Congo.
However, some locals have dismissed use of the Ebola vaccine, saying it does not work. Many said they are prevented from mingling with others or even going to church after being vaccinated.
The mystery of the Ebola virus has left some locals believing that it is a curse or the result of evil spirits and that it can only be solved by prayers and fasting.
“I don’t think this is normal disease that doctors can handle. It’s brought by evil spirits as a punishment to the community,” said Sango, 30, a father of two who owns a butchery in Mangina. “We need to come together as a community and ask God for forgiveness for the sins we committed.”
Meanwhile, Christians in the eastern part of the country continue to pray at home for the end of Ebola and also to keep up the faith.
“Some of us have turned our houses to be churches. We sing, dance and pray to move closer to God. We read our Bibles and pray so that the Holy Spirit can guide us,” said Sango.