The questions for this morning are rather simple: (a) Who were the Ugandan martyrs, (b) why were they killed and (c) why are they so symbolic for millions of Christians in the growing churches of Africa?
These questions are especially important, since Pope Francis has just visited Uganda to mark the 50th anniversary of the canonization of the Catholics among the 45 believers who -- with Anglican martyrs, as well -- were tortured, beheaded, hacked to death and burned on the orders of King Mwanga II in the late 1800s.
Why did this happen? What does it have to do with the rapid growth, and the beliefs, of the church in modern Africa?
Quite a few mainstream news organizations -- The New York Times in particular -- were vague, silent or inaccurate when dealing with the answers to some of these questions. But let's start with a report from CBS and the Associated Press that included the essential details.
NAMUGONGO, Uganda -- Pope Francis on Saturday honored the Ugandan Christians who were burned alive rather than renounce their faith a century ago, urging today's Catholics to follow in their missionary zeal and spread the faith at home and abroad.
A somber Francis prayed at shrines dedicated to the 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic martyrs who were killed between 1885 and 1887 on the orders of a local king trying to thwart the influence of Christianity in his central Ugandan kingdom. According to historians, the Christians were also killed because they refused the king's sexual advances, citing the church's opposition to homosexuality.
This report also touched on the fact that the sexual politics of Africa remain strikingly complex and even tragic, as believers here wrestle with a web of colonial-era and tribal beliefs and customs, with the constant pressure of Islam on many borders.
The CBS/AP report noted:
... The church isn't having it all its own way here. ... Pizzey reports. Some 40 percent of Ugandans are Catholics, but a mere 20 percent of couples are legally married. The rest cohabit in what the church delicately terms "irregular situations."
It's more or less the way the church also refers to homosexuality, which is a raging issue here, Pizzey reports. Uganda has some of the most severe anti-homosexuality laws in Africa, including a proposed one that would have imposed the death penalty but which the church successfully lobbied against.
Reuters also got the essential facts into the story, when discussing why the martyrs died. The "why" question is especially important if the goal is to understand the mindset of modern believers in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa.
Pope Francis travelled to Uganda's holiest shrine on Saturday, paying tribute to 19th century Christian martyrs killed for their faith, including for protecting young boys in the royal court from abuse by the king. ...
Twenty-five Anglicans and 22 Catholic converts where killed during the persecutions, mostly by being burned to death, between 1884 and 1887 on the orders of King Buganda Mwanga II. The most famous of the Catholic converts was Charles Lwanga, a prefect in the royal court who was in charge of the boy pages and was killed because he tried to protect the children from the sexual advances of the king.
Why does this matter so much? As an essay at the Catholic site The Word Among Us notes:
Perhaps because, as Pope John Paul II pointed out during his visit to their shrine, their sacrifice was the seed that “helped to draw Uganda and all of Africa to Christ.” Despite the martyrs’ youth -- most were in their teens and twenties -- they are truly “founding fathers” of the modern African church, which displays so much vigor today.
The bottom line: The martyrs died because they refused to stop teaching the faith to young people. This is why, while visiting Uganda, Pope Francis paid special attention to Catholic educators and catechists.
However, there is no question that Africans have also focused on the fact that these young believers died, in part, because they refused the king's orders to deny their faith bu serving as his sexual slaves.
Once again, journalists in Western newsrooms do not have to agree with the lessons that Africans would say that they have drawn from the deaths of these "founding fathers" of the faith on their continent.
Clearly, journalists need to interview a variety of experts on questions linked to Uganda's laws about sexuality, some of which date to the colonial era. It is crucial, as well, to understand how these laws have been shaped by tensions between African Christians and Islam, with many radical Islamists claiming that Christians have been willing to compromise on issues of sexual morality. In Africa, debates about sexuality often have life-and-death consequences.
But why ignore the actual details of the Uganda martyrs story? Take this BBC report, for example:
There were huge cheers as the Pope began the open-air ceremony at Namugongo, near the capital Kampala. It was where many of the 45 Anglican and Catholic martyrs were burned alive.
Their execution was ordered by a king worried about the spread of Christianity.
And that is that? And the New York Times?
NAMUGONGO, Uganda -- On the very spot where some of this nation’s first Christians were burned to death for adhering to their beliefs, Pope Francis offered a Mass for hundreds of thousands of Ugandans on Saturday.
And later on in the story:
The Namugongo shrines, just outside the capital, Kampala, are dedicated to the 19th century Anglican and Catholic converts in Uganda who were burned, speared and tortured by a local king after they refused to renounce their Christian beliefs. Twenty-two Catholic martyrs here were canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1964. Inside the halls, vivid sculptural displays depict the gruesome killings: one man tied at the ankles being dragged away, another splayed across a tree as a figure above him wields an ax. Before celebrating the Mass, Francis paused to bow his head in front of the shrines.
Christianity in Uganda did not just survive. It flourished. Today, about 85 percent of Ugandans are Christian, with Roman Catholics accounting for half that amount. But the Pentecostal church has been growing fast, along with some very conservative religious beliefs.
So the climate of conservative beliefs found among Ugandans, including those harsh colonial-era laws, are linked to the rise of modern Pentecostal and evangelical flocks linked to America and the West?
It's a good thing for the Times to cover the politics of sexuality in lands such as Uganda, including the divisions found among Catholics, Anglicans and, yes, evangelicals. But it ignoring basic facts about Christian history in this region -- especially when dealing with figures as important as the martyrs of Uganda -- will not help.
The martyrs were slaughtered for "adhering to their beliefs" and that is that? Tell that to millions of African Christians.