Uganda Martyrs Day takes place on June 3 every year. This religious holiday has been observed since 1975 and is of great significance to the Ugandan people. It celebrates the bravery and sacrifice of the 45 Christians who chose execution rather than renouncing their faith, at a time of great social and political strife caused by religious tensions. The Ugandan martyrs are hailed as heroes, and in some cases, saints. Though they faced a tragic end, the 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts have always been, and will always be, a symbol of inspiration, hope, and unity to Ugandans.
History of Uganda Martyrs Day
Christian missionaries began trickling into Africa in the late 1800s. The first of them were Catholics. Known as the White Martyrs because of the robes they wore, they traveled by caravan into Central Africa, spreading the gospel as they went. In 1879, the White Martyrs established a mission in Uganda. The kingdom of Buganda as it was known back then, was one of the largest and most powerful ethnic groups in the region. Their leader Kabaka Muteesa gave his subjects the freedom to choose their faiths. Some believed that Christianity was eroding their tradition, culture, and values. When Muteesa died in 1884, his son Kabaka Mwanga ascended to the throne.
Mwanga did not share his father’s tolerance for other religions, and he harbored a strong dislike for Christianity in particular. He felt the missionaries diminished his power, and in 1885, barely a year after becoming the king, he had three missionaries executed. Later that year, an Anglican bishop and his retinue were murdered. Joseph Makasa, one of Mwanga’s advisors, questioned his king about this and was beheaded for his efforts. Thus, Makasa became the first black martyr.
Mwanga targeted pages who worked with the missionaries, and when Charles Lwanga, a missionary, attempted to shield them, he and 16 of his fellow missionaries were executed. The excuse was that they refused to declare loyalty to the king, but in reality, Mwanga was threatened by their defiance. When the persecution finally came to an end in 1887, Mwanga had a total of 45 Christians executed — 45 martyrs from the Anglican and Catholic churches. Pope Paul VI canonized the Catholic martyrs in 1964, and on June 3, 1975, he had a shrine dedicated to them. This is why Uganda Martyrs Day is celebrated on June 3 every year.
Uganda Martyrs Day timeline
The first missionaries arrive at the court of Kabaka Muteesa, sent by the Church Mission Society from Great Britain.
The White Fathers inaugurate the Roman Catholic Church Mission.
Scarcely a year after assuming the throne, Kabaka Mwanga orders the execution of the first three Christian martyrs.
Jean-Marie Muzeyi, the last of the Christian martyrs, is beheaded on the orders of Mwanga.
Uganda Martyrs Day FAQs
Who were the first three Ugandan martyrs?
The first three Uganda martyrs were Yusufu (Joseph) Rugarama, Makko (Mark) Kakumba, and Nuwa (Noah) Serwanga.
Who was the youngest Ugandan martyr?
Saint Kizito was the youngest martyr executed on the orders of Mwanga.
What does ‘kizito’ mean in English?
‘Kizito’ means “gift from God, destiny’s child, pride of God.”
How to Observe Uganda Martyrs Day
Pray to the martyrs
It’s customary for pilgrims and Ugandans to pray to the martyrs for guidance. Others bring offerings to the shrine. Celebrate this day by praying to the martyrs. It’s a simple but powerful way to honor them.
Read about the Church in Africa
The Church has played a major role in African history and continues to influence it today. From humanitarian aid to education and healthcare. On Uganda Martyrs Day take some time to explore this history, and find out what you can do to help as a Christian.
Learn more about the martyrs
All the martyrs were people, not just statistics. They were trusted members of the royal court, missionaries, and even children. Learn more about them, so that their story is never forgotten.
5 Fascinating Facts About Martyrs
‘Martyr’ is a Greek word
‘Martyr’ comes from the Greek word ‘martys,’ which means ‘witness.’
‘Christian martyr’ was reserved for apostles
The term ‘Christian martyr’ was a reference to the apostles, who witnessed the death and ascension of Christ.
The number of Roman martyrs is unknown
Emperor Nero slaughtered so many Christians to purge their religion, that the number of martyrs from this period is unknown.
Roman martyrs weren’t recognized for centuries
It wasn’t until 1969 that the Church added Roman martyrs to its liturgical calendar.
Roman martyrs were accused of being atheist
As bizarre as this sounds, it happened because Roman Christians and martyrs refused to recognize the Emperor as a deity, and they refused to recognize Roman gods.
Why Uganda Martyrs Day is Important
Learning from the past
It would be so much easier if we just covered up the past, especially when it comes to incidents of persecution. On Uganda Martyrs Day we’re reminded of the importance of being tolerant of other people’s cultures, beliefs, and religious freedoms.
Honoring the martyrs
The 45 Ugandan Christians who were executed had embraced their fate. They stood firm and held onto their convictions knowing what the penalty may be, despite being promised mercy if they renounced their newfound religion. Such bravery and sacrifice should be emulated and celebrated.
The power of unity
The Christian martyrs were Anglicans and Catholics. Both sects were in fierce competition in Uganda at the time. But in the end, when it mattered, the martyrs stood together as Christians, with no regard for the different denominations. On Uganda Martyrs Day we’re reminded that united, we are strong.
Uganda Martyrs Day dates