KAMPALA: This year’s Martyr’s Day celebrations will be open to all, according to the organizers.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Robert Muhiirwa, the Bishop of Fort Portal diocese, says that following a series of meetings between church leaders, officials from the Ministry of Health and the Office of the Prime Minister, it was agreed to lift all restrictions on the celebrations.
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Uganda in March 2020, the government suspended public gatherings, including religious events, which affected the martyr’s day activities. Although the government lifted the restrictions and fully reopened the economy, the church has been uncertain on whether or not it would allow full attendance of the Martyr’s Day celebrations, which attract hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life-in and outside of the country.
Dr. Patrick Birungi, the Executive Director of Uganda Development Cooperation, who is also the vice-chairperson of the organising community, notes that following the green light from the government, pilgrims from the region and internationally are free to attend the event. He, however, says that the regional and international pilgrims will have to meet international travel requirements as stipulated by the ministry of health.
Those who will come for pilgrimage from neighbouring countries are advised to look out for travel requirements, which will include, among other things, negative COVID-19 PCR tests taken within time frames as guided by the health ministry. Those with vaccination certificates should also move with them, he said.
To manage crowds, the previous organisers like Tororo archdiocese and Masaka diocese allocated specific days to particular groups like the youth and children before the D-day.
Bishop Muhiirwa, who is also the vice-chairperson of the Uganda Episcopal Conference, notes that although attendance will be open to all as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be strict enforcement of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) set by the health ministry, including social distancing, washing of hands, and wearing a facial mask.
He says that they will also deploy several people to take the body temperature of the pilgrims, while others will be on patrol to enforce the recommended social distance.
The Bishop stresses that even if the government has allowed all people to attend, those who intend to walk should ensure they are in good health. Additionally, he says that those coming for the event should also remember that Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrines maintain zero tolerance for polythene paper.
Rev Fr Richard Bomeera, who is in charge of liturgical preparations for the event, notes that Fort Portal, which last organised the martyrs’ event 25 years ago, is planning a super event. As the celebrations are always spiced up by the choir, Rev. Bomeera notes that they have assembled a choir of 300 people, which has started residential training from Friday to Sunday of every week.
In regard to finances, the organising committee has got a push from the president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who recently pledged to offer Shs1 billion towards the preparations of the event and the renovation of the Our Lady of Snows Virika Cathedral in the Fort portal.
The Rev Fr. Edward Muhumuza, the chairperson of the finance committee, notes that they have decided that from the presidential pledge, 500,000 schillings will be used for martyrs’ day while the other half will go into renovating the church.
In addition to the presidential pledge, we have also collected a total of Shs200 million. This means we have Shs700 million and therefore we have a shortfall of Shs300 million, “says Muhumuza. Muhumuza notes that to raise the remaining amount of money, the organising committee has decided to hold fundraising events that will include dinner, among others.
The Uganda Martyrs Day is an annual event in honour of 45 young men who converted to Christianity between 1885 and 1887, to the annoyance of Kabaka Mwanga II of Buganda, who ordered that they be burnt to death.
Millions of pilgrims from within and outside Uganda descend on Namugongo, the site where the majority of the converted were martyred in celebration of their bravery. In 2020, the celebrations were cancelled, while in 2021, the church organised a low-key event with a limited number of Christians invited due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.