Over two million African pilgrims streamed into Namugongo, Uganda, on Sunday to commemorate the 45 Ugandan Christian martyrs executed for resisting the homosexual advances of King Mwanga II in the late nineteenth century.
On June 3, 1886, King Mwanga had 26 of his male pages who had converted to Christianity burned alive at Namugongo, the present-day site of the national shrine to the Uganda martyrs. Among the other 19 Christian martyrs, the king had six castrated, six beheaded, five dismembered, and two speared.
According to historian Marie de Kiewiet Hemphill, the “immediate pretext, if not the whole cause, for the tragedy was the refusal of the young Christian pages at the court to yield to Mwanga’s unnatural desires.”
Initially, Mwanga bore no animosity toward the Christian missionaries, both Anglican and Catholic, but as king, he resented the Christian influence over the behavior of his subjects. While still loyal to their king, the Christian converts professed ultimate fidelity to Christ and refused to yield to Mwanga’s homosexual advances.
Mwanga took this to be a treasonous insult and became determined to rid his kingdom of Christian teachings and its adherents.
Mwanga took no action against the women among the converts but carried out his fury only against the men who refused to give in to him. The king became infuriated with “the religion which made them prefer death to submission to his shameful demands,” wrote John F. Faupel, in African Holocaust: The Story of the Uganda Martyrs.
On June 3, 1886, the Christian feast of the Ascension that year, the king rounded up his pages who had converted to Christianity and had them march several miles to Namugongo, where he burned them alive on a pyre.
The heroism of the young martyrs galvanized Christianity in Buganda (present-day Uganda), and June 3 has become a national day of Christian celebration.
Ugandan Catholic priest Paul Gyaviira Muwanga said last week that June 3 is a fundamental day for the nation’s Christians because of the witness of the martyrs executed in Namugongo.
“We should not forget that there are other martyrs who lost their lives before and after June 3rd but we remember all of them on that day, in praying for grace so that God can have mercy unto them,” Father Muwonga said.
Ben Tenywa, the author of A Short History of the Uganda Martyrs who works at the Martyrs Shrine in Namugongo, said that the martyrs continue to inspire Ugandan Christians today.
“We would like to emulate them and we pray through intercession to give us courage to be like them,” he said. “People walk from far to make a journey of faith as an act to sanctify themselves spiritually.”
For Sunday’s celebrations, police estimated that at least two million people attended the mass, with pilgrims present from all over Uganda as well as from other countries in Africa, Europe, and even the United States. An aerial video of the crowds can be seen below:
Some of the pilgrims traveled hundreds of miles on foot to reach the shrine. More than 30 bishops from throughout Africa were joined by more than 200 priests in concelebrating the mass, over which Archbishop Emmanuel Obbo of Tororo, Uganda, presided.
Pope Paul VI canonized the Uganda Martyrs in October 1964.
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