The place was forlorn. Only a handful of faithful were allowed to enter both the Catholic and Anglican Martyrs shrines at Namugongo, on the outskirts of Kampala.
Only 60 worshippers were allowed to pray at the shrines unlike in the past when hundreds of thousands would attend the annual event at this venue that made 100 years yesterday since it was established.
Many were barred from accessing the shrines. The security team manning the gates had a list of those invited. Among those turned away were priests, reverends and sisters.
Ms Vicky Auma, a resident from Gayaza, who defied the presidential directive and used a boda boda to Namugongo, was turned away.
“I heard about 40 people would be allowed in so I decided to come because I heard miracles do happen here. I am now disappointed because at the gate, they have told me that I am not allowed to go in,” she said.
Beautified in 1920, this year marks 100 years since the 22 Catholic martyrs were declared saints.
Sister Anna Rose from the nearby convent was told that she could not access the Catholic Shrine because she was not among those invited.
“They said my name was not among those invited… as if God has not enlisted me. They told me that I should not enter so I am now going back home,” she said.
Dr Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, the Archbishop of Kampala Archdiocese, said this year has been unique because people’s lifestyles have changed.
The Archbishop said the Covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible for Christians to congregate and urged them to always observe social distancing and other guidelines issued by the government.
“Usually, this is a national pilgrimage where Ugandans would be here, but because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the bishops decided that you should not gather here following government guidelines,” Archbishop Lwanga said.
He said wherever the Christians are, they must not forget to pray and “ask the Uganda martyrs” to intercede for them so that they are healed.
At the Anglican shrine, Archbishop of the Church of Uganda Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu appealed to Ugandans to emulate the martyrs on unity amid trials and persecution occasioned by the pandemic.
“We are here to be encouraged by the stories of martyrs to emulate their examples of faith, commitment and unity amid the trials and persecution they went through. Men and women who suffered because of their faith finally turned out important in the world,” Archbishop Kaziimba said.
He said the public needs to focus on unity regardless of their ideologies, tribe and religious differences, especially as the country approaches the 2021 polls.
He also urged the public to fight against corruption and tribalism, saying they are threatening the church and the country.
The Martyrs’ Day service was preceded by the commissioning of the Shs58b project for the redevelopment of the shrine.
The project comprises the construction of phase two of Uganda Martyrs’ museum tower, a worship centre, Amphitheatre, a 200-room museum hotel, children’s park and a recreation centre, among others.
While commissioning the construction works, the Speaker of Parliament, Ms Rebecca Kadaga, said the redevelopment plan would change the face of Namugongo and provide comfort to believers during celebrations.