The Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda has hailed President Yoweri Museveni for his role in the struggle to remove former president Idi Amin’s government from power, saying Amin had denied them freedom of worship.
The remarks were made by the Rabbi for the Jewish community in East and Central Africa, Gershom Wambede, during their celebrations to mark 100 years of existence in Uganda. Wambede is also the Member of Parliament for Bunghokho North in Mbale district.
Wambede, a member of opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), said President Museveni played a great role in the struggle that ended the Amin dictatorship and brought freedom of worship in Uganda.
“We are grateful to Museveni for starting the struggle to overthrow a government that did not respect our right to worship,” Wambede said.
“Idi Amin killed and imprisoned a number of Jews because he did not want them to enjoy their right to worship until President Museveni and the Tanzanian government overthrew him,” he added.
Wambede also gave the history of how the Abayudaya community came into existence in Uganda. He said in 1919, Semei Kakungulu, a military general was recruited by the British to be a missionary, but that Kakungulu later found the Hebrew Bible more compelling and in 1919 he started following the laws of Torah.
“By 19120-1925, Kakungulu’s followers had grown to about 8,000 people who proudly identified as Abayudaya (people of Judah),” he said.
According to Wambede, in 1936-1970, Samson Mugombe assumed leadership of the community and over the years, the Abayudaya became increasingly connected with the world Jewish community through Israel diplomat Arye Oded and other Jewish travelers.
“However, in 1971, Amin came to power and made the practice of Judaism punishable by death.
Wambede said in June 1976, Abayudaya started secretly fasting and praying for those that had been held hostage by Palestinian and German terrorists aboard a hijacked airplane at Entebbe Airport, adding that most of the hostages were freed in a daring operation by Israel special forces.
“In April 11, 1979 President Museveni and others with help from the Tanzanian government started a struggle to overthrow Amin in coup on the night before the Passover holiday. The reign of terror ended just at the right moment,” Wambede said.
In 2003-2008, with the support of the American Bechol Lashon, Wambede attended rabbinical school and served as rabbinic intern at Shomeri Torah Synagogue in the US and returned to Uganda and was installed as Chief Rabbi.
He said that since then, the number of Abayudaya has grown to over 2,000 members and they have built schools, health centres, drilled water sources and distributed mosquito nets to Christian and Muslim comminutes.
The state minister for environment, Mary Kitutu, who represented Speaker of Parliament, Rebeca Kadaga, as chief guest during the celebration, also hailed the Jewish community for supplementing government work by extending services to communities.
Kitutu also warned the community against infighting, saying that it would work to their disadvantage since they are a minority group.
“We have grown up knowing the Jews as humble and peaceful people and we do not want to hear you fight one another. We should all support government programmes,” Kitutu said.