Bishop Umar Mulinde of the Pentecostal Gospel Life Church International is a well-known public figure in Uganda, notably because the former Muslim Sheikh converted to Christianity in 1993. In 2011, he and a group of religious leaders petitioned Parliament and won a temporary stop to the Muslim Personal Law Bill, giving provision for the legal establishment of Islamic courts in Uganda. After a brutal acid attack, he now tries to recover in Israel from his physical damages. Contrary to his body, his mind hasn’t been broken.
With a low-tipped cowboy hat and pink-flesh coloured compression mask hiding his scars, Umar Mulinde (38) moves gingerly across a Tel Aviv hotel lobby, sheltered from the scorching hot Israeli sun. A heavy tiredness envelops him as he finally sits down after his daily trawl to Sheba Hospital, half an hour away in Ramat Gan, which is treating the deep acid burns that scar the right side of his face.
It’s hard to believe it’s the same man seen in a variety of YouTube clips, energetically preaching like a firebrand in his native Uganda – until he speaks with unwavering conviction. “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.”
Mulinde was attacked on Christmas Eve 2011, right outside the Pentecostal Gospel Life Church International where he is pastor, and directly opposite a police station in Namasuba, 10 kilometres from Kampala. Two assailants approached him 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 had fire from the head up to the toes, to the legs down.”
As he coupled over, the second attacker poured acid over his back. The acid that missed Mulinde burned a hole through the metal of his car, demonstrating its potency. Mulinde’s last recollection of the assault was hearing the words ‘Allah akbar’ echoed three times. He thought he was going to die.
It wasn’t the first attack on his life. Mulinde is a well-known public figure in Uganda, notably because he is a defector, a former Muslim sheikh, the grandson of an imam, who converted to Christianity on Easter Sunday in 1993. Mulinde says from that time forward, 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 with 360,000 signatures, and won a temporary stop to the Muslim Personal Law Bill in April 2011, that a fatwa was issued against his life.
The Muslim Personal Law Bill aims to operationalise Article 129 of the Ugandan Constitution, giving provision for the legal establishment of Islamic courts in Uganda and the administration of justice to the Muslim community 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 shades that cover his one good eye, as well as the one that 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 that Uganda is a secular state.”
Not only for Muslims
More than a year later, the Ugandan Muslim Centre for Justice and Law (UMCJL) is once again trying to expedite having the Islamic courts, which currently operate ad-hoc, legalised. UMCJL president Jaffer Senganda, who knows Mulinde personally, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide that he doubts Muslim involvement in Mulinde’s attack. He says the Christian opposition in Uganda was afraid that Islamic courts would have jurisdiction in criminal matters, which isn’t true.
When posed with that statement, Mulinde counter-argues that the Christian population’s fears were validated by Nigeria’s example. “They said, ‘This is for Muslims’ but they end up applying it to everybody.” He believes that Islamic courts will only legalise the persecution of the type of crime he has been a victim of.
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 treated several traumas from terror incidents, 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 treating doctor Haik Yosef says while the physical damage to Mulinde 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 still fights the establishment of Islamic courts, and will continue his campaign on the ground when he returns to Uganda in several months time. But first, he has three more surgeries and skin grafts to endure.