Millions of pilgrims traveled thousands of miles to Uganda’s Catholic shrine for the feast of the Uganda Martyrs, celebrated each year June 3, 2018. Police estimated that this year’s crowd, which gathered at the Basilica of the Uganda Martyrs in Namugongo, totaled as many as 4 million. While most hail from Uganda, many came from other countries, including Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Japan, and the United States.
The shrine, built on the site where most of the martyrs were killed, is located about 10 miles northeast of downtown Kampala. The feast of the Uganda Martyrs honors 24 Catholic martyrs from the country, 22 of whom were killed between 1885 and 1887 under King Mwanga of Buganda (now a part of Uganda), and two others who were killed in 1918 in Northern Uganda. Twenty-three Anglican Ugandans were also killed for their Christian faith within the same time period.
The first Catholic martyr was Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, who was beheaded and burnt Nov. 15, 1885, for pleading with Mwanga to spare the life of James Hannington, and Anglican bishop who was to be killed for his missionary activities. Many of the other martyrs were killed in May of the following year. On May 25, they were ordered to go on a days-long death march to Namugongo for refusing to denounce their faith. Several were killed along the way by spear for refusing to continue walking, or for collapsing from exhaustion.