Pope honours Ugandan martyrs

  • 29/11/2015
Pope Francis (C) during a meeting with priests, religious and seminarians in Kampala's cathedral, Uganda (AAP)
Pope Francis (C) during a meeting with priests, religious and seminarians in Kampala's cathedral, Uganda (AAP)

By Jean-Louis de la Vaissiere and Amy Fallon

Vast crowds of Ugandans have greeted Pope Francis as he honoured Christians martyred for the faith on the second leg of a landmark trip to Africa, which he dubbed "the continent of hope".

The 78-year-old pontiff was greeted by wild cheers and singing on Saturday (local time) at a shrine to the martyrs at Namugongo, just outside the capital Kampala, to honour more than 40 Christians who were executed in the 19th century for refusing to recant their faith.

Over 100,000 people had waited from before dawn at the open-air shrine to attend the mass, a highlight of his visit to Uganda.

A total of 45 Catholics and Protestants, many of them youngsters working as royal pages, were executed by King Mwanga of Buganda between 1885 and 1887. At issue was their refusal to comply with the king's sexual advances towards them and other young boys in the court.

"Today, we recall with gratitude the sacrifice of the Uganda martyrs," Francis said at the Namugongo shrine where 26 of them were burned alive on June 3, 1886.

"Not only were their lives threatened but so too were the lives of the younger boys under their care," he said. "They were fearless in bringing Christ to others, even at the cost of their lives."

Homosexuality remains illegal in many countries in Africa, including Kenya and Uganda, where lawmakers passed tough anti-homosexuality legislation in 2013 which was later overturned on a technicality.

As the crowd sang and danced, a policewoman at the venue went into labour, giving birth to a baby girl, naming her Franchesca - the female version of Francis, Uganda's New Vision newspaper reported.

Catholic faithful from neighbouring war-torn South Sudan were also there after travelling for 12 hours by bus to catch a glimpse of the Argentine pope, who has made humility and help for the poor a hallmark of his tenure.

Among the guests was South Sudan's President Salva Kiir who held a brief private meeting with the pope, according to a South Sudanese government official who gave no further details.

Later in the afternoon, Francis was expected to hold an audience with thousands of young people in the capital's Kololo neighbourhood.