Serere’s missing faithful: Why 273 Christians went to Ethiopia

Some of the members of Christ Disciples Church who were arrested in Kenya on their way to Ethiopia. Photos | File

What you need to know:

  • Some believe the church is a cult that is exploiting its followers but authorties say there is no evidence of this.

On February 19, several communities in Serere and other neighbouring districts woke to discover that some of their colleagues had disappeared in the dead of the night.

The missing, 273 in number, were all members of the Christ Disciples Church (CDC) led by Pastor Vincent Ocen and Pastor Joseph Ikwaret, whose home is adjacent to the church in Ongobai Cell, Kidetok Town Council, Serere District.

Joseph Mada, a 75-year-old resident of Ogobai Village, says: “I was asleep in my house that fateful night. When I woke up in the morning, I found out that my son [Pastor Ikwaret] had left together with all his family members to an unknown place.”

Prior to this incident, the group had camped at the church premises for 10 days fasting and conducting overnight prayers.

Six days after the disappearance of the group, the East Kyoga Regional Police launched investigations into the matter and some members of the church were arrested and charged with human trafficking.

Among them was George William Asuna, the Tirinyi Village chairperson and a member of CDC.

“Together with two reverends, we were detained in Ngora Police [Station] for five days and on the sixth day we were charged with human trafficking, a charge we deny. Itesot Cultural Union came and gave us bond and explained that they had cleared these people to go to Ethiopia,” Asuna told Daily Monitor.

It was later discovered that the group had gone to Ethiopia allegedly to preach the word of God to the Kangatan- Nyangatom community.

On March 3, the Iteso Cultural Union, an organisation that unites all the Ateso-speaking people, confirmed this development saying they sanctioned the trip.

The information minister of the Iteso Cultural Union, Mr Gabriel Opolot Ononge, revealed that the trip was part of a mission to fulfill five objectives of the Ateker Peace Caravan which was held in Ethiopia in 2019 to foster peace and harmony, among others.

“We issued an introduction letter which took the first team of pastors for Christian missionary activity in Ethiopia. They went and had a meeting with the Ateker Yangotom and the host church. As you know Yangotom is a large area so they had to mobilise themselves and carry relief items, some posho, beans, sweet potatoes, and some cassava,” Ononge said.

He added: “I authored the letter. They had to pass via [Karamoja] so we asked them to show the introduction letter to the [authorities there and those in] Turkana (Kenya) when they pass [through] their land. [They were also to show it to the Nyangatom officials in Ethiopia] who would be their hosts. But they had to work with immigration authorities [in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia] , which they did.”

 He further said: “They had the Yellow Fever card, Covid certifications and the East African Cooperation documents, like the national identification cards.   As we speak now, they have been there preaching, using the message of the Bible to win hearts and minds to stop fighting among themselves.”

According to the cultural institution, this endorsement was part of the efforts to pacify the region, which is prone to cross-border cattle raids, poverty and drought and the missionaries, through religion, serve as interlocutors between the communities. The congregants at this church claim that they are only doing evangelical work and being led by the Holy Spirit.

The group began the gruelling three-day journey in the dead of the night on February 18. They went to Moroto border where they boarded hired trucks with Kenyan number plates to Lodwar Town in north-western Kenya. They entered Ethiopia through a smaller border post at Kibis and settled in Kangatan- Nyangatom, at the western side of the Omo River.

Inside Ethiopia, the group, according to communication on the instant messaging application, WhatsApp, were received by Nakora Nasike, the Chief Administrator of Nyagatom Woreda province and are currently being hosted by Pastor Ekal Etir, the head of Hiwot Birhan Church, which is reportedly the third largest denomination of the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia. 

Homicide detectives carry some of the 14 bodies they found in mass graves on a piece of land belonging to sect leader Paul Mackenzie, at Shakahola Village in Kilifi County, Kenya on April 22. Cults thrive in circumstances of hardship as locals seek a respite for their worldly problems.

“From the time my son left here, I have not spoken to him because I don’t have his phone number and I don’t have a phone. So, actually I don’t know where he is but I was told that he had been sent by the Holy Spirit to do some work, somewhere. I am diabetic so that is why I did not go. So, they told me to remain here to keep the church,” Mada says

Prior to the trip, the leaders of the church had encouraged the group to gather food and Shs2m each for transport. Many allegedly sold their property to get the money.

It is also alleged that there were a number of correspondences between the members of CDC and the leadership of Hiwot Birhan Church. 

We were unable to verify this information by press time yesterday.

However, it is the way the group left that has left many in the community concerned about their well-being. Authorities in the district say they were not aware of the trip.

Francis Jakaite, the Gawa Village chairperson, says: “Some of my residents migrated to Ethiopia in a hidden manner…. they said they got information from God to go to Ethiopia to preach the word of God. I did not stamp any letter and I have not given any authorisation. I am worried because I don’t know where my people are, how they are surviving.”

Godfrey Olenga, a councillor in Serere District, told Daily Monitor: “As a leader they did not report to us about their departure. It is true, I am a resident but some of the information was concealed. It was a rumour that they were selling property and on verification they said it was a lie. Later on, we found that they had started selling property and they left stealthily without our knowledge.”

Many in the community also believe that the church is a cult.

Cults usually run a fanatical and puritan doctrine, operate in secrecy and manipulate their members against sharing information with those outside the church. Their leaders are usually charismatic and narcissistic. 

The church members proffer that just like other religions, they teach the Christian doctrine and its followers all follow the teachings of this faith.

Seggane Musisi, a professor of psychiatry, says cults deprive communities of their wealth, which renders them vulnerable.

“They claim it was voluntary, however, this is a pattern of behaviour synonymous with cults, where members are deprived of their material property and become utterly dependent on their leaders. They usually deprive them of their material possessions, so whatever it is you want it is provided by the charismatic leader,” Musisi, who is also a senior consultant of psychiatry at Mulago National Referral and Teaching Hospital, says.

The former chairperson of the Department of Psychiatry at Makerere University College of Health Sciences, adds: “They (cults) tend to go for vulnerable people, the poor in places where there has been war. Critical thinking is stopped. It is usually people who are in need of comfort, peace and the world has become too difficult for them. So, the population is already vulnerable from the extreme poverty. Free thinking is stopped. You have to follow what the charismatic leader is saying with total obedience.”

Authorities lack theological training and are not able to distinguish cults from ordinary churches.

Many of these churches thrive in circumstances of hardship as locals seek a respite for their worldly problems.

They also thrive in communities with a cocktail of crises including disease, poverty and war. Their leaders prefer to preach a doomsday-message that emphasizes the pain and scars suffered by the affected communities.

Serere, a conflict-prone area, has grappled with insurgencies including the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency and raids from Karimojong cattle rustlers.

Cults typically cause rifts in families.

On March 17, 2000, about 700 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments in Kanungu District, southwestern Uganda died after the leader of the church set it on fire.

The leaders of the cult had convinced their followers that the world would come to an end at the turn of the millennium.

Many sold their property and lived a reclusive lifestyle cultivating in the lush green hills at Nyabugoto, where the church once squatted. 

Usually, the cult leaders often buy favours from local authorities as was the case during the Kanungu massacre.

This is not unique to Uganda. The media has been awash with the news of the discovery of more than a hundred bodies of members of the Good News International Church in Malindi, Kenya.

The leader of the church, Pastor Paul Mackenzie, who has since been arrested by the Kenyan authorities, is accused of encouraging his followers to starve to death.

Although CDC has cult-like tendencies, there is no actual evidence to prove that it is one.

The police claim they have no evidence of wrongdoing or crimes being committed and, therefore, are unwilling to infringe on the freedoms of the church members to worship.

Kanungu residents and relatives of the Kibwetere cult victims covering their noses with rosemary twigs as police removed bodies from a pit. The proliferation of churches in Uganda has given rise to charismatic manipulators and con men who take advantage of the most vulnerable segments of communities. 

“From our investigations, we noted that persons from the districts of Serere, Ngora and Kumi, are in Ethiopia. We have concluded our investigations and forwarded the file to the office of the Director of Public Prosecution (ODPP). What we want to hear from the ODPP is what do we do about it,” Oscar Ageca, the acting East Kyonga Regional Police spokesperson, told Daily Monitor.

He adds: “The issue is not about sneaking, you cannot limit someone’s right to pray under the Constitution, it was under that guise that they organised and went and now the issue is about the legality of their movement. We are aware they crossed the border they had documents.”

Asuna says CDC is not a cult and the doomsday theory was fabricated by a rival faction.

When Daily Monitor visited the church premises, we found a makeshift structure made of brick walls, scaffolding, and a thatched roof which acts as the actual church.

Several people were praying and worshipping in the building.

Some of the members that we spoke to say at a particular time, they will travel to Ethiopia to join their colleagues at whatever cost.

Florence Isogbai reveals that her family doesn’t believe in the church and discouraged her from travelling to Ethiopia.

Isolated from their family and now in the far-flung foreign lands, the missionaries from CDC are now at the mercy of the leader.

However, members of the church say it is their clarion call to preach the word of God.

On May 1 the Kenyan Police intercepted 99 members of this church in Nakuru allegedly travelling to Ethiopia to join their colleagues.

The team, which compromised largely children below the age of 13 and youth, were returned to Uganda and detained at the regional police of East Kyoga.

The proliferation of churches in Uganda has given rise to charismatic manipulators and con men who take advantage of the most vulnerable segments of communities.

The Pentecostal Church, which has bred a number of charismatic leaders that preach a message of fire and brimstone, usually extort their flock. Many of these fiery preachers enjoy support from the ruling elite and are co-opted at the grassroots to campaign for the government. These churches are unlikely to be encumbered by oversight from local authorities.

As local authorities remain passive in the face of bad faith actors in religious practice, calls for restrictions on freedom of worship continue to gain credence

Rodgers Atwebemebeire, a Bible scholar and researcher, is advocating for inter-denominational committees to regulate the activities of religious groups on behalf of the government.

“The reasons are many-- they relate to how the government regulates. We have so many Christians who have not been discipled in their faith. Very few of our Christians know what they believe in matters of doctrine. Today all you need to say is God has given you a vision and crowds will follow you,” Atwebemebeire says.

about the church

Christ Disciples Church (CDC) was started in 1973 by a self-styled prophet, Solomon Otale who hails from Amuria District. A charismatic preacher, he led his church to break away from the Pentecostal church.

It is heavily influenced by the orthodox evangelical scriptures peppered with praise, worship and exorcism rituals.

In 2019, a row among its top leadership resulted in the church splitting up.