Archbishop Janani Luwum

Martyr of Uganda

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Archbishop Janani Luwum
Martyr of Uganda

Picture courtesy of Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.org

Janani had no early education, spending his youth as a goatherder. He was given a belated opportunity to begin at school and quickly showed ability. His conversion to Christ happened while he was a teacher. He became an enthusiastic evangelist. From 1949 he studied theology at Buwalasi College. After a period as a lay preacher he was ordained in 1956. As Uganda gained independence from Britain, Luwum was noted as a rising indigenous leader in the church.

His progress was impressive: after 2 periods of study in England, he became principal of Buwalasi. Then, in September 1966, he was appointed Provincial Secretary of the Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire. It was a difficult position to occupy, and these were anxious days. But Luwum won a reputation for creative and active leadership, promoting a new vision with energy and commitment. Only 3 years later he was consecrated bishop of the newly-formed Diocese of Northern Uganda. The congregation at the open-air Services included the prime minister of Uganda, Milton Obote, and the Chief of Staff of the army, Idi Amin. Janani was then appointed to the Anglican Consultative Council and served on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

1n 1971 Idi Amin had the government overthrown and he took control of Uganda. Almost immediately, he began a policy of repression, arresting anyone suspected of not supporting him. Hundreds of soldiers from the Lango and Acholi tribes were shot down in their barracks. Amin ordered the expulsion of the Asian population of Uganda, about 55,000 persons, mostly small shopkeepers from India and Pakistan. Over the next few years, many Christians were killed for various offences. International observers and human rights groups estimate that between 100,000 and 500,000 people were killed under Idi Amin’s regime.

In 1974 Janani was elected archbishop of Uganda and was one of the African bishops who made a lasting impression on those attending the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation.

Early in 1977 in Uganda, Bishop Festo Kivengere preached on "The Preciousness of Life" to an audience including many high government officials. He denounced the arbitrary bloodletting, and accused the government of abusing the authority that God had entrusted to it. The following Saturday (5 February) there was a raid on the home of the Archbishop, Janani Luwum, ostensibly to search for hidden stores of weapons.

The Archbishop protested the policies of arbitrary killings and the unexplained disappearances of many persons. Amin accused the Archbishop of treason, produced a document supposedly by former President Obote attesting his guilt, and had the Archbishop and two Cabinet members (both committed Christians) arrested and held for military trial. The 3 met briefly with 4 other prisoners awaiting execution, and were able to pray with them briefly. Then they were put in a Land Rover and not seen alive again by their friends. The government story is they died in a car accident. His body was placed in a sealed coffin and sent to his native village for burial. The villagers opened the coffin and discovered bullet holes in his body, it is believed he was shot on the orders of Idi Amin.

A funeral service planned for the following Sunday was forbidden by the government. Nevertheless 4,500 people gathered at the cathedral on Namirembe Hill, and a service was held. The singing began with the hymn associated with the martyrs of Uganda of 1885-86, “Daily, daily sing the praises”. This was caught up by the crowds, until the hill rang with the sound of the victory song, again and again. The following June, about 25,000 Ugandans came to the capital to celebrate the centennial of the first preaching of the Gospel in their country, among the participants were many who had abandoned Christianity, but who had returned to their Faith as a result of seeing the courage of Archbishop Luwum and his companions in the face of death.

Idi Amin the “Butcher of Uganda” was ousted from power in 1979 by an invasion from Tanzania. He died in 2003.

BORN: c. 1922, Kitgum District, Northern Uganda

DIED:17 February 1977 (aged 55), Kampala, Uganda