Bishops in Uganda “postpone” Uganda Martyrs’ Day Pilgrimage over COVID-19 Restrictions

Namugongo Martyrs Shrine in Uganda, venue for the annual celebration of Martyrs Day.

Bishops in the East African nation of Uganda have postponed indefinitely the celebrations of the Martyrs’ Day that had been scheduled for May 29 and June 3 due to the COVID-19 restrictions put in place by the government including public gatherings.

The deferment was announced April 29 by the President the Uganda Episcopal Conference (UEC), Bishop Joseph Antony Zziwa. He stated, “The Conference will later come up with another arrangement.”

In his letter announcing the deferment, Bishop Zziwa highlighted the “difficulties and uncertainty” occasioned by COVID-19 restrictions and called on those who had planned to participate in the annual pilgrimage to “understand the situation and accept to postpone the Uganda Martyrs' Day which was supposed to be held in May and June 2020.”

Masaka diocese has been engaged for the past several months in preparing for the annual event that brings together both local and international pilgrims.

“Rt. Rev. Serverus Jjumba, the Bishop of the Diocese of Masaka, has officially informed me that his Diocese will not be in position to organize the 2020 Namugongo Martyrs Day celebrations (29th May for Youth and 3rd June 2020 for the rest of the pilgrims),” Bishop Zziwa stated.


“The position of Masaka Diocese should be understood in light of the fact that organizing the celebrations at Namugongo requires frequent meetings involving several people, including Government's security agencies,” Bishop Zziwa explained.

He further explained that the “stringent restrictions” on public gatherings put in place by the government had “made worship and celebration of the Eucharist, Sacraments and other liturgical-pastoral activities with our faithful very difficult.”

The existing COVID-19 restrictions, the Local Ordinary of Kiyinda-Mityana diocese has noted in the one-page letter announcing the cancellation, make it hard to achieve the “unfettered movement of persons participating in the organization of the events.” 

“It is not certain when restrictions on gatherings and movements will be lifted,” the 64-year-old Prelate has noted and added, “Even if the Government of Uganda were to lift the ban today, there would not be enough time to prepare for the events.” 

The Martyrs Day is a national holiday in Uganda that commemorates the 22 Catholics killed alongside their 23 Anglican counterparts on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga II, then King of Buganda Kingdom between 1885 and 1887 and two Ugandan martyrs of a later period, who died at Paimol in Uganda’s Lira diocese in October 1918. 

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In preparation for the celebrations, Church leaders in Uganda had initiated various activities, with Bishop Jjumba of Masaka diocese calling for massive national re-awakening of the devotion to the Martyrs through activities such as recitation of prayers and litanies of the Uganda Martyrs at the end of every liturgical function and a votive Mass to the martyrs every Tuesday.

To mark the end of the year-long devotion that started on June 3, 2019, Christians were scheduled to pray the Uganda Martyrs Novenas from May 25 to June 2.

In remembrance of the martyrs, pilgrims on foot were to plant 24 trees in every parish where they would rest, a move that heeds to Pope Francis’ call to care for our common home in his Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’.

At the close of the celebrations, each diocese was to be given a tree to plant as an ecological memory of the Martyrs’ Day as a permanent reminder of planting trees and protecting our environment.

Bishops in the country had also collectively agreed to ban plastic bags at the martyr’s shrine, “to protect the environment and humanity from the harmful effects of polythene bags.”


The diocese of Masaka had also conceptualized the logo for this year’s celebration, which has an image of the 24 martyrs holding branches, a component the Bishop Jjumba said is “a sign of Victory gazing at the Crucified Christ.”

To facilitate the celebrations, the diocese of Masaka has been mobilizing funds amounting to 950 Million Uganda Shillings (US$258,433), to cater for the days’ logistics including the welfare of the two choirs that were expected to animate the Holy Mass, preparation for the Solemn Liturgy among other activities.