Every June 3 Christians in Uganda commemorate the killing of 53 young men killed between 1885 and 1887 for refusing to denounce their faith in Christianity. They were burnt to death on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga II, the then king of Buganda. Pope Paul VI canonized 22 of the martyrs who were Catholic on October 18, 1964 as saints by Pope Paul VI.
This commemoration has become quite significant for the African Church, particularly the Anglican and Catholic churches. In Senegal a church built in 1890 has preserved some relics of the martyrs. Some churches in the country are dedicated to St Kizito – the youngest of the martyrs.
Every year hundreds of people make the pilgrimage from African countries to Namugongo.
The Namirembe Diocese led the celebrations at the Anglican Shrine this year. The Anglican Bishop of Butare, Rwanda, . Nathan Gasatura, was the guest speaker this year speaking on the theme “Martyrs do not die in vain” (Philippians 1:12). He challenged Christians to shun negative tendencies like tribalism and corruption.
Ben Kwashi, the Archbishop of Jos Province, Anglican Communion, Church of Nigeria, who had been both a pilgrim and a guest speaker at the Martyrs day in Namugongo called on the Nigerian Church to remember its own martyrs.
“We should have a day set aside, as our martyrs day. We should have a site where we keep a record of these martyrs with their pictures. Where we set aside a day to visit the shrine in remembrance of the people who gave their lives for the gospel in Nigeria and in the church.”
The Archbishop who has himself been targeted in assassination plots said: “It shall be a big loss to the church if we do not remind ourselves of those who for the sake of the faith, laid down their lives.”
Going into history, Archbishop Kwashi said, “The church was wise enough very early to put dates aside in memory of Stephen and of the apostles and later on of great men like Justin Martyr, Augustine and several others through the ages. And if you look at Fox’s ‘Book of Martyrs’, it’s a compendium of martyrdom in the history of the church.
But it would seem that after the reformation, not much of martyrdom seem to have been recorded… The church seems to have lost track of how many Christians have been killed for the faith,” he declared.
The Archbishop noted that there are people who will always stand out for their courage and commitment to the faith. “I will never forget the two bishops in Syria who disappeared. Here in Nigeria I will never forget two incidents. The Rev Manjang, former Church Of Christ In Nations (COCIN) vice-president in Jos who kept the Fulanis from being killed in his church and house and fed them for several days. But they turned around and killed him with his daughter-in-law, grandchildren and everyone who was there for going good..
“The second is my memory of my classmate, Iyasco Taro, of Church of the Brethren (EYN). He had just been posted to Kaduna and he came to see me. He was preparing for the weekend services in his vestry when his church was surrounded. He was burnt alive. The miracle of his death, which I will never forget, was that his bible didn’t burn. He died covering the bible, the bible didn’t burn, which was amazing. No stain of blood, nothing.”
Since the Church in Nigeria is yet to set aside dates to remember Christians going through persecution and those martyred the Archbishop said that he himself remembered Martyrs on 11 and 12 March. “That was the beginning in Zaria. I still have my little coffin where I put the ashes of my home that was destroyed by Muslims. I have never forgotten those days in March during Babangida’s leadership, under the governorship of Major Uma and the Emir of Alhaji Idris of Zazzau, that a hundred churches were burnt to ashes and destroyed. For 72 hours the government did nothing and no-one was arrested, prosecuted or indicted,” Archbishop Kwashi declared.
“At that time only six people were killed, but now we are talking about hundreds and thousands. And it used to be whole sale killings like in Dogon na Hauwa where about 500 people were killed. Today there are many incidents in which smaller numbers of 15 or 20 are killed and in a week you have about a thousand.
Ugandans, he argued, had done a great job of preserving the memories of their historical martyrs. The less publicised aspect of the story was that the King of Buganda wanted to have a homosexual relationship with the boys and they refused. “It didn’t happen so he roasted them. They kept that part of the memory to celebrate people who stood for their faith. And refused to yield to sin of an immoral sexual practice, a perverted sexual practice. So to remind them that they will never turn to perversion. That’s a great thing, the Catholic have done that the Anglicans have done that to remind them of their faith. They have built shrines, in memory of these martyrs.”
“To the credit of the Catholics, it is a canonized pilgrimage for Catholics all over the world and they travel from Nigeria, from everywhere to remind themselves of these people who rejected sinful practices, perversed sexual practices in order to uphold the teachings of the bible.
The Anglican are coming late but I am so glad that in the last two years, the Anglicans have modernized their shrines, and I think they are thinking of internationalising the pilgrimage in Namugongo. I think that Uganda is upholding the flag.” Kwashi said.
“On the other hand we have places like Pakistan, Syria and Nigeria where Christians are being persecuted for our faith. We need to get a place and we must celebrate with the Eucharist on certain Saint’s Days the persecuted people of faith in Nigeria. We pray that we may uphold the faith as people who died in Zaria, in Jos, in Sokoto, Kano, Katsina, and in Maiduguri, everywhere in Nigeria,” the Archbishop added.