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WHAT MADE BISHOP KIVENGERE LOVE CRUEL IDI AMIN?

THE CHURCH IN UGANDA was born in suffering. After Christianity gained a foothold in Buganda in the nineteenth century, King Mwanga II martyred forty-five Catholic and Anglican converts. Some of them died for refusing the king’s homosexual advances. He also had British missionary James Hannington killed on the eastern border of Buganda, apparently fearing he would act as an agent for British conquest of Uganda. Buganda became the central and largest part of a British protectorate known as Uganda late in the nineteenth century. 

In the twentieth century the church faced an even more severe crisis after Idi Amin seized power in a 1971 coup against President Milton Obote. Amin began to slaughter opponents with abandon, killing probably 300,000 Ugandans, although estimates are as low as 100,000 and as high as 500,000.

Perhaps it was the memory of the brave martyrs who preceded them that helped Uganda’s bishops speak out against Amin’s brutal behavior. On this day, January 30, 1977, Anglican Bishop Festo Kivengere, once a spirit worshipper, but now a man of God, challenged the killing. Preaching on “The Preciousness of Life” to high government officials, he rebuked the state for abusing the authority given it by God and denounced the persistent bloodletting.

Before becoming bishop, Kivengere had been a successful evangelist who led large rallies that resulted in revivals which broke down traditional animosities. He had also been a translator for Billy Graham and the two became close friends.

A few days after Kivengere gave his “Preciousness” sermon, Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum delivered a similar protest directly to Idi Amin. Within hours he was tortured and shot. Friends warned Kivengere that his own arrest was imminent. “One dead bishop is enough,” they said. Kivengere fled with his family in a vehicle and then on foot, crossing into neighboring Rwanda. They soon moved to Kenya. There he published the book I Love Idi Amin. He said, “On the cross, Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.’ As evil as Idi Amin was, how can I do less toward him?” 

After Amin was ousted by neighboring Tanzania, Kivengere returned to Uganda, preaching love, forgiveness and reconciliation to the bruised nation. “A living church,” Kivengere had written, “cannot be destroyed by fire or by guns.” He remained active in reproaching civil rights abuses by the restored Obote regime. He was also active in a pan-African evangelistic movement and broke with tradition by ordaining women priests. He died of leukemia in 1988.

Dan Graves

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Christian History # 79, The African Apostles has accounts of many other Stellar African church leaders.

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