Pope Francis visits Ugandan shrine amid gay rights debate

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Pope Francis traveled 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.

Francis, on the second leg of his first African tour, said Mass for tens of thousands of people huddled on muddy hillsides surrounding the soaring modern shrine made of iron and cone-shaped to resemble a hut of the Baganda tribe.

See more from Pope Francis' trip to Africa:

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Pope Francis in Kenya
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Pope Francis visits Ugandan shrine amid gay rights debate
Pope Francis greets Kenyan youths at the Kasarani Sport Stadium in Nairobi on November 27, 2015. Pope Francis embarked upon an African tour during which he will visit Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR), countries which have significant Catholic communities but have been troubled by civil conflicts and violence. AFP PHOTO/JENNIFER HUXTA / AFP / Jennifer Huxta (Photo credit should read JENNIFER HUXTA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis bids farewell from the popemobile at the end of a meeting at the Kasarani Sport Stadium in Nairobi on November 27, 2015. Pope Francis embarked upon an African tour during which he will visit Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR), countries which have significant Catholic communities but have been troubled by civil conflicts and violence. AFP PHOTO/JENNIFER HUXTA / AFP / Jennifer Huxta (Photo credit should read JENNIFER HUXTA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis climbs onto the popemobile at the end of a meeting at the Kasarani Sport Stadium in Nairobi on November 27, 2015. Pope Francis embarked upon an African tour during which he will visit Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR), countries which have significant Catholic communities but have been troubled by civil conflicts and violence. AFP PHOTO/JENNIFER HUXTA / AFP / Jennifer Huxta (Photo credit should read JENNIFER HUXTA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis joins hands with members of the congregation at the Kasarani Sport Stadium in Nairobi on November 27, 2015. Pope Francis embarked upon an African tour during which he will visit Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic (CAR), countries which have significant Catholic communities but have been troubled by civil conflicts and violence. AFP PHOTO/JENNIFER HUXTA / AFP / Jennifer Huxta (Photo credit should read JENNIFER HUXTA/AFP/Getty Images)
People stand in the streets during Pope Francis' visit to the Kangemi slum, in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. Pope Francis denounced the conditions slum-dwellers are forced to live in during a visit to one of Nairobi's many shantytowns Friday, saying that access to safe water is a basic human right and that everyone should have dignified, adequate housing. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Children cheer and wave during Pope Francis' visit to the Kangemi slum, in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. Pope Francis denounced the conditions slum-dwellers are forced to live in during a visit to one of Nairobi's many shantytowns Friday, saying that access to safe water is a basic human right and that everyone should have dignified, adequate housing. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Pope Francis waves to local residents as he drives to St. Joseph The Worker Catholic Church in the Kangemi slum of Nairobi, Kenya Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. Pope Francis is in Kenya on his first-ever trip to Africa, a six-day pilgrimage that will also take him to Uganda and the Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Children gasp as they watch a Kenyan Police helicopter fly overhead, while awaiting for the arrival of Pope Francis at the St. Joseph The Worker Catholic Church in the Kangemi slum of Nairobi, Kenya Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. Pope Francis is in Kenya on his first-ever trip to Africa, a six-day pilgrimage that will also take him to Uganda and the Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Pope Francis waves to local residents as he drives to St. Joseph The Worker Catholic Church in the Kangemi slum of Nairobi, Kenya Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. Pope Francis is in Kenya on his first-ever trip to Africa, a six-day pilgrimage that will also take him to Uganda and the Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Pope Francis waves to local residents as he drives to St. Joseph The Worker Catholic Church in the Kangemi slum of Nairobi, Kenya Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. Pope Francis is in Kenya on his first-ever trip to Africa, a six-day pilgrimage that will also take him to Uganda and the Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Women sing religious songs as they wait for the departure of Pope Francis from the St. Joseph The Worker Catholic Church in the Kangemi slum of Nairobi, Kenya Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. Pope Francis is in Kenya on his first-ever trip to Africa, a six-day pilgrimage that will also take him to Uganda and the Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
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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 and martyrs 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.

SEE MORE: Pope says fossil fuels must be curbed in talks

After their conversion they tried to spread the faith to other groups. Catholics now make up about 40 percent of the population. Churches run many schools and hospitals around the country.

"They did this in dangerous times," the pope said during a Mass celebrated from a concrete island on an artificial lake on the shrine complex outside the capital Kampala.

Traditional singing and dancing gave way to a Western-style church choir as the pope walked to the altar via a gangway over the lake, which was guarded by police scuba divers in dinghies.

"Not only were their lives threatened but so too were the lives of the younger boys under their care," he said.

Uganda has been seen as a bastion of anti-gay sentiment since 2013, when it sought to toughen penalties, with some lawmakers pushing for the death penalty or life in prison for some actions involving gay sex.

The law was overturned on procedural grounds, but not before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry compared it to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany. Other Western donors were outraged.

Gay rights activists in Uganda said before the visit that they hoped the pope would make a gesture of tolerance to homosexuals.

Failing to address the issue would be "a missed opportunity to protect LGBT persons," said activist Frank Mugisha.

Ten of Pope Francis' most provocative quotes:

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10 of Pope Francis’s Most Provocative Quotes
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Pope Francis visits Ugandan shrine amid gay rights debate

"Hatred is not to be carried in the name of God! War is not to be waged in the name of God!"

October 8, 2014, St. Peter’s Square

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests."

June 28, 2013, on a flight to Rome

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits — but no."

January 19, 2015, on a flight to Rome

(Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

"I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful ... I see the church as a field hospital after battle."

September 30, 2013, interview, America magazine

 (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)

"I believe in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation."

October 1, 2013, interview, La Repubblica newspaper

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"Men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste.’ If a computer breaks it is a tragedy, but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people end up being considered normal."

June 5, 2013, St. Peter’s Square

(Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

"Perhaps you were mad, perhaps plates flew, but please remember this: never let the sun go down without making peace! Never, never, never!"

February 14, 2014, St. Peter’s Square

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"Do you open your hearts to the memories that your grandparents pass on? Grandparents are like the wisdom of the family, they are the wisdom of a people."

October 26, 2013, St. Peter’s Square

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"True love is both loving and letting oneself be loved. It is harder to let ourselves be loved than it is to love." 

January 18, 2015, Manila, Philippines

 (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

"Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads ... to those who have quit or are indifferent."

September 30, 2013, interview, America magazine

(AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)
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In the prepared text of his homily for the Mass, the pope praised the martyrs for telling the king "what the gospel does not allow," an apparent reference to homosexual acts.

The pope, however, did not read that part of the homily. It was not clear if he decided to remove it.

The Church teaches that while homosexual tendencies are not a sin, homosexual acts are. It also says homosexuals should be respected in the Church and society but that Catholic homosexuals should remain chaste.

The pope first visited a separate shrine to the 25 Anglican martyrs before saying Mass at the nearby shrine to the Catholic martyrs, who were made saints by Pope Paul VI in 1964.

Later on Saturday, the pope was due to hold a rally with Ugandan youth and visit a Church-run home for the poor.

On Sunday morning, he is due to leave for the Central African Republic, potentially the most dangerous stop on his trip.

For nearly three years, the Central African Republic has been embroiled in an inter-religious conflict that has effectively split it in two. Thousands have been killed and more than one in five have fled internally or sought refuge abroad.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella)

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