Catholicism in Uganda, the world’s youngest Christian populace

Christianity first arrived in Uganda in the 1870s by way of the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society, which was soon followed by French Catholic missionaries.

Relics of the Uganda Martyrs are carried in procession at the start of Pope Francis' celebration of Mass in 2015 at the Catholic shrine at Namugongo in Kampala, Uganda. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

For their religious dissent against a despotic ruler, 22 Catholic and 23 Anglican converts were martyred in the historical kingdom of Buganda (now part of Uganda) between November 1885 and January 1887.

June 3 is the feast day of these martyrs, whom Pope Paul VI canonized in 1964. The following decade saw Uganda mired in the grip of one of the 20th-century’s most authoritarian regimes.

Though the current situation is much improved, widespread poverty and corruption remain serious problems in Uganda, where Catholics comprise about 40% of an overall population of 46.2 million people.

About 45% of the population is Protestant, three-quarters of whom are Anglicans. Evangelicals also comprise a sizable and growing portion. About 14% of the population is Muslim (the Islamic faith arrived by way of Arab traders coming from the ancient city of Zanzibar in neighboring Tanzania).

Christianity first arrived in Uganda in the 1870s by way of the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society, which was soon followed by French Catholic missionaries. Mutesa, a tribal king in central Uganda, was immediately receptive. But his successor, King Mwanga, grew hostile when he saw how the faithful were more loyal to Jesus than to him. Violent deaths soon followed.

Instead of subduing Christianity, however, these martyrdoms produced the opposite effect. Indeed, Uganda proved a fine example of early Christian author Tertullian’s famous statement, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

The most prominent of the Ugandan martyrs was 26-year-old Catholic convert Charles Lwanga. During his grisly execution on June 3, 1886, he said, “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body.”

The first native Ugandan Catholic priests were ordained in 1913. And as the 1930s drew to a close, Uganda’s Diocese of Masaka became the first Roman Catholic diocese “administered wholly by African clergy rather than European missionaries.”

After about 70 years as a British protectorate, Uganda obtained independence from the U.K. in October 1962. Violent power struggles ensued. The most hellish period, of course, was the eight-year reign of Idi Amin, a onetime national heavyweight champion boxer with scant education, an infectious smile, and almost unrivaled cruelty.

His sadism and paranoia saw 300,000 civilians murdered, often under heinous circumstances. In 1979, following an ill-conceived attack on neighboring Tanzania, a counter-attack by Tanzanian forces and Ugandan exiles ousted Amin from power. He lived out a comfortable retirement in Saudi Arabia before his death in 2003.

Idi Amin’s atrocities ended not so long ago, but still years before the overwhelming majority of Ugandans were even alive. With a median age of just 15.7 years, Uganda has the world’s second-youngest population (the world’s youngest population belongs to Niger, an almost-entirely Muslim country in West Africa). Uganda also has among the world’s most rapidly increasing populations.

There are currently four archdioceses and 15 suffragan dioceses in this landlocked East African nation. The official languages are Swahili and English, the latter of which predominates in print media and courts of law.

Masses are said in English, Swahili, or one of various local languages, relates Fr. Oswald Mallya. A native of Tanzania who has served in Zambia and Uganda since his 2003 ordination, Mallya is the Provincial Superior of the Missionaries of Africa (known informally as the White Fathers).

Mallya relates that most priests in Uganda are native Ugandans, “but there are also missionaries coming from almost every part of the world.” He has seen some “signs of secularization” in Uganda and a small but noticeable decline of faith, typically among persons of affluence.

In Mallya’s view, “the gap between the rich and the poor” is the biggest problem facing Uganda, where 41% of the population lives on less than $1.90 per day.

During the final decade of the 20th-century and the 21st century’s first decade, Uganda made significant improvement in curbing its level of extreme poverty. Many millions of Ugandans, however, remain heavily impoverished. This is especially so in rural areas, where it is not uncommon for families to spend two-thirds of their income on food — and still face malnutrition.

Compounding matters further is the fact that Uganda, which borders both South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has Africa’s largest refugee population.

Mallya uses the word “cordial” to describe relations between Catholics and Protestants. He adds, though, that such cordiality can dissolve in the political arena, where “at times candidates are elected on tribal and religious lines.”

“The particular kind of religious pluralism that prevailed in Uganda prepared the way for the association of religious identities with parties,” wrote Ronald Kassimir in his 1998 article “The Social Power of Religious Organisation and Civil Society: The Catholic Church in Uganda”.

Kassimir writes of how, during British colonial rule in Uganda, the Anglican Communion, though smaller in membership, had more power than the Catholic Church. Kassimir relates that Catholics “experienced discrimination in public sector employment” and other venues.

Though the Anglican Communion held more political influence, there still were Catholics of prominence. Among them was Benedicto Kiwanuka (1922-1972), who led Uganda’s heavily-Catholic Democratic Party and also became Uganda’s first elected prime minister (though he soon lost this position amid the rise of rival political alliances). Later serving as Chief Justice of Uganda, his respect for the rule of law put him in serious disfavor with Idi Amin.

While presiding over a case at Uganda’s High Court, Kiwanuka was arrested by the dictator’s henchmen, who then whisked him away to a military prison. His ensuing murder was a grotesque spectacle of cruelty, even by Idi Amin’s standards.

Though the current era is far less barbaric, Uganda still ranks poorly in Transparency International’s corruption index. The current president, Yoweri Museveni, has held power for over 36 years; he long ago amended Uganda’s laws regarding term limits.

In 2014, members of Ugandan parliament, who already received a salary 60 times higher than most state employees, dared to request a pay hike. Many citizens grew irate. One ensuing protest saw two piglets released into the parliament building.

Amid these troubles, Mallya describes the Church in Uganda as “a powerful force” that “can influence a lot in education, health and social services.” He views Uganda on the whole as “a good country with a lot of possibilities,” but he stresses the “need to address the growing gap between the rich and poor” as well as unemployment among young people. He would also like to see the Church become more assertive in addressing issues of greed and materialism. After all, Uganda’s Catholics long ago proved their willingness to hear the Church’s message, and willingness to die for it.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Ray Cavanaugh 19 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

6 Comments

  1. This is a whitewash: “Christianity first arrived in Uganda in the 1870s by way of the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society, which was soon followed by French Catholic missionaries. Mutesa, a tribal king in central Uganda, was immediately receptive. But his successor, King Mwanga, grew hostile when he saw how the faithful were more loyal to Jesus than to him. Violent deaths soon followed.”
    “the faithful were more loyal to Jesus than to him.” Let’s be specific: they were more loyal to Jesus in the very particular way that they refused the king’s homosexual advances. This king insisted that the page boys have homosexual sex with him. They refused. He was enraged and had them executed in the most horrible ways.
    “Violent deaths soon followed,” is a passive voice construction, leaving out the identity of the murderers.
    I appreciate that this article is calling attention to the Ugandan martyrs and the devotion of the Ugandan people. But, this soft-pedalling is lame.

  2. I think if you check the background of the martyrdom of those Catholics in Uganda in the late 19th c., it was precipitated by their refusal to submit to the perverse desires of that tribal king.

    Ugandans are a delightful people. I spent some time there about 10 years ago traveling with an American priest who was born there. The people work hard to support themselves economically. The Catholics I met there were serious about their faith. It wasn’t at all surprising that their history has numerous examples of a willingness to die for their faith. American Catholics should take note when their bishops pander to the lowest common denominator by transferring Holy Days to Sunday’s and changing the practice of not eating meat on Fridays (which if still local law, is universally flouted). I can’t help comparing Ugandans willing to go to their death rather than submit to the sodomistic desires of their king while in the USA we’ve a history of bishops not only advancing a homosexual agenda in the Church but of participating in it directly themselves.

  3. Considering how lively and fervent the Church is in Africa, I wonder why only two out of the 21 cardinals who will be created in August are from Africa. Some “peripheries” matter more than others, it seems.

  4. The Uganda martyrs are an everlasting testament against the moral crime of homosexuality signatured in their blood.
    East Africans held to a traditional account of what occurred. Arab slave traders were involved, these traders would either assault small villages and take captive, or with larger tribal locales seek to purchase by trade with the chieftain in this instance King Mwanga. Similar to slavers world wide slaves were frequently raped and sodomized. Chieftains seemed to have little remorse in selling their people for profit. The slavers introduced Mwanga to hashish followed by homosexuality. That was the primary motive for the king to order his attendants to submit to sodomy. One biographer an apparent Catholic missionary witness did say a secondary motive was Mwanga’s jealousy of the martyrs obedience to Christ rather than to him.
    This blessed martyrdom must be given account exactly how nd why it occurred as continued testimony against the homosexual plague infecting nations and religions. Jennifer Roback Morse has good reason to take issue.

  5. As I read the piece I was getting ready to comment that the martyrs of Uganda died because they refused to submit to King Mwanga’s lust, a major point which the writer curiously ignored. I am glad that other commentators got in before me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*