Ugandan acid attack victim won't be silenced

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Pentecostal Bishop Umar Mulinde has become well-known in Uganda since converting from Islam to Christianity. His campaign against the introduction of Islamic courts in Uganda resulted in him suffering a brutal acid attack last year. Now in Israel for treatment, his body may be broken and suffering, but his mind and spirit are strong.

 By Vanessa O’Brien, Tel Aviv

With a low-tipped cowboy hat and pink-flesh coloured compression mask covering his face, Umar Mulinde (38) moves gingerly across a Tel Aviv hotel lobby, sheltered from the scorching Israeli sun. Exhaustion overwhelms him as he finally sits down after his daily journey to Sheba Hospital, where he is being treated for the deep acid burns that scar the right side of his face.

It’s hard to believe this is Uganda’s firebrand Bishop of the Pentecostal Gospel Life Church International, who can be seen energetically preaching in a variety of YouTube videos. Speaking with unwavering conviction, he says “the people who did this to me, they thought they are serving God. But I feel sorry for them and I forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing.”

Allah Akbar
Mulinde was attacked on Christmas Eve 2011 in Namasuba, 10 kilometres from Kampala, right outside his church and directly opposite a police station. Two men approached and threw an unidentified acid directly at his face. “As I was opening the door of my car, one poured a bucket of acid on my head,” Mulinde recalls. “I felt fire from my head down to my toes.”

As he toppled over, the second attacker poured acid over his back. Acid burned through the metal of Mulinde’s car. His last memory of the assault was hearing the words “Allah Akbar” echoing three times. He thought he was going to die.

Mulinde is a well-known public figure in Uganda, notably because he is an apostate. He’s a former Muslim sheikh, the grandson of an imam, who converted to Christianity on Easter Sunday in 1993. From that time forward, says Mulinde, even his own brothers wouldn’t greet him in the street.

But it wasn’t until he led a group of Christian leaders to petition Parliament in April 2011 that a fatwa was issued against his life. They were calling for a temporary halt to the introduction of the Muslim Personal Law Bill. It aims to put into effect Article 129 of the Ugandan Constitution, providing for the establishment of official Islamic courts to dispense justice to Uganda’s Muslims under sharia law.

“We even told the government that if they do it and go ahead we will sue them,” Mulinde says passionately, while adjusting the dark glasses that cover his one good eye and the one doctors were unable to save. “We will take it to the court of law because if Uganda is 85 percent Christian, and we have never asked for Christian laws in the constitution, how do you put Muslim laws in the constitution? The constitution says Uganda is a secular state.”

Not only for Muslims
The Ugandan Muslim Centre for Justice and Law (UMCJL) is once again pushing for the legalisation of the sharia Kadhi courts, which currently operate ad-hoc. UMCJL president Jaffer Senganda, who knows Mulinde personally, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide that he doubts Muslims were involved in the acid attack on the Bishop. He says the Christian opposition in Uganda fears that Kadhi courts would have jurisdiction in criminal matters, which isn’t true. Mulinde counter-argues that the Christian population’s fears are validated by Nigeria’s example. “They said, ‘This is for Muslims’ but they end up applying it to everybody.”

Although Mulinde was raised to hate Israel as a Muslim, he had a change of heart when he converted to Christianity. He has brought several groups of Ugandan pilgrims to the Holy Land and established friendships in the Jewish community. Sheba Hospital’s burn unit, which has experience dealing victims of terrorism, is treating him for free.

“He has a long way to go,” says Sheba Hospital spokesman David Weinberg, “but his story is one that played on our hearts.” Mulinde’s doctor Haik Yosef says while the physical damage is “severe and deep”, his future prognosis is good. “Some people get small scars and become depressed, but sometimes even such a severe burn like Umar’s won’t change his character or his perception of everything. I think he will do just fine.”

The attack has not deterred Mulinde: he is still fighting the establishment of Kadhi courts, and will continue his campaign when he returns to Uganda in several months time. But first, he has three more surgeries and skin grafts to endure.