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Ugandans Honor Martyred Archishop Janani Luwum

Uganda has a rich heritage of martyrdom, from the 45 boys slaughtered by Mwanga II in the 19th century to the periodic victims of radical Islamists in this century. One of its best-known martyrs in the 20th century was Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was killed on orders by dictator Idi Amin in 1977. An estimated 400 Ugandans paid tribute to Archbishop Luwum in mid-February, on the 47th anniversary of his death.

The national government has announced plans to construct a soccer stadium at the site of Luwum’s grave. “This initiative is not just a tribute to Luwum’s love for sports but also represents a commitment to nurturing talent and promoting unity among Uganda’s youth,” said a report by Israel Ojoko of BNN Breaking.

Luwum was born in 1922 and became a Christian in 1948. He was active in the East African revival, which led to his becoming a lay reader, a deacon and, in 1956, a priest. He taught and Buwalasi Theological College and became its principal. In 1958, he spent a year at St. Augustine’s College in Cambridge, England. He returned to England in 1965 to spend another year at the London College of Divinity (later St. John’s, Nottingham, which has since closed).

In 1969 he was ordained and consecrated as Bishop of Northern Uganda. Amin attended the ceremony as the army’s chief of staff, according to Westminster Abbey’s brief essay on Luwum’s life and death. A statue honoring Luwum’s ministry stands at the West Entrance to the abbey.

“Amin sought power for himself,” the Westminster Abbey essay adds. “Two years later he deposed [President Milton] Obote in a coup. In government he ruled by intimidation, violence and corruption. Atrocities, against the Acoli and Langi people in particular, were perpetrated time and again. The Asian population was expelled in 1972. It was in the midst of such a society, in 1974, that Luwum was elected Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Boga-Zaire. He pressed ahead with the reform of his church in time to mark the centenary of the creation of the Anglican province. But he also warned that the Church should not conform to ‘the powers of darkness.’ Amin cultivated a relationship with the archbishop, arguably to acquire credibility. For his part, Luwum sought to mitigate the effects of his rule, and to plead for its victims.”

Luwum was a frequent and vocal critic of Amin’s abuses of power. He often visited the State Research Bureau to help secure the release of prisoners. The tensions between Amin and the archbishop reached their boiling point in 1977.

“On 16th February, the Archbishop and six bishops were tried on a charge of smuggling arms,” says an account published by the Anglican Church of Uganda. “Archbishop Luwum was not allowed to reply, but shook his head in denial. … The Archbishop was separated from his bishops. As he was taken away Archbishop Luwum turned to his brother bishops and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I see God’s hand in this.’”

The government claimed that Luwum died in an auto accident. When villagers opened Luwum’s sealed coffin, they found his corpse was riddled with bullets.

In 2019, Anglican Communion News Service reported that descendants of Luwum were reconciled with one of Amin’s kinsmen.

The Rev. Canon Stephen Gelenga, from the same Kakwa tribe as Amin, delivered an emotional apology to Luwum’s family during commemoration events.

“What happened during the reign of Idi Amin, who is my kinsman, we still feel the pain after 40 years,” he said. “As the new generation, we need to put to end all the bad past and we move forward as reconciled Ugandans. Ugandans cannot heal this country if we pay evil for evil.”


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