Martyrs’ Day in Uganda

On 3rd June, Uganda celebrates Martyrs’ Day. It is a public holidays, which commemorates the 22 Catholics and 23 Protestants who were killed for refusing to renounce their faith between 1885 and 1887. 3rd June is significant because it is the date in 1886 where the largest mass execution took place, at Namugongo, where 26 martyrs were burnt to death. The 22 Catholic martyrs were beatified in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, and proclaimed saints by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
Christianity was introduced to the Buganda kingdom (which is in the central region of Uganda, where Kampala is) in 1887 with the arrival of British Protestant missionaries, who were closely followed two years later by French Catholic missionaries. The missionaries brought discord and fighting to the kingdom, and these new religions threatened the sovereignty of Buganda from the Western masters who were seeking to expand their empires. Seeing the threat that this presented to is rule, Kabaka (King) Mwanga II began killing Christians in November 1885, and the persecution lasted up until January 1887.
Forty five nascent converts refused to give up their faith. Namugongo was the place of execution, and it is here that the bulk of the killings took place. There are two shrines at Namugongo – the Protestant Shrine, where the main pyre was, and the Catholic Shrine, where one of the Catholic martyrs, Charles Lwanga was singled out to be burnt separately. The Catholic Shrine was built over the place where he died, and was decreed a basilica in 1993. This means that it has special ecclesiastical privileges. It is now a site for pilgrims who come each year for martyrs day. Millions of people make the pilgrimage – often on foot – to Namugongo each year. It is here, also, that three Popes have come when they have visited Uganda: Pope Paul VI in 1969, Pope John Paul II in 1993 and more recently Pope Francis in 2015.

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