KAMPALA, Uganda — Pope Francis celebrated the memory of a group of 19th-century Ugandan martyrs, both Catholic and Anglican, in an outing Saturday that might have been a natural opportunity to wade into contemporary African debates over gay rights and the criminalization of homosexuality.

The pontiff didn’t do that, however, and some African Catholics don’t appear all that disappointed with his restraint.

The story of the 45 martyrs is relevant to tensions over gay and lesbian rights in several African nations, including Uganda, because according to one version of the story, these young Christian men were executed after spurning the advances of a traditional king.

What’s beyond dispute is that between 1885 and 1887, on the orders of King Mwanga II, 22 young Catholics and 23 Anglicans were killed after being ruthlessly tortured. Some were burned alive, while others were ripped apart with a spear, savaged by feral dogs, or viciously dismembered.

Beyond that, versions of the story diverge. Ugandan Christians generally accept what Pensiero Kalumba, a Catholic seminarian in the diocese of Kampala, described as the “secondary reason” behind the death of the martyrs — the primary reason, as Kalumba sees it, being their fidelity to the Christian faith.

That “secondary reason”, widely accepted by the local Catholic hierarchy, is that King Mwanga put the Christians to death because they would not submit to his sexual overtures. The claim is documented in a book published in the early 1960s by a Catholic priest titled “African Holocaust: The Story of the Uganda Martyrs.”

Kalumba says it’s “obvious” these 45 young men, most of whom were pages at the royal court, would have refused the king’s demands because “they’re contrary to what Jesus teaches.”

Another version is found on the website “Dictionary of African Christian Biography,” in an article titled “A History of Christianity in Uganda” by the Rev. Kevin Ward.

Ward, a senior lecturer on African studies at the University of Leeds, suggests the martyrs were killed because the leader of the kingdom of Buganda saw them as unwitting tools of foreign imperialism. (As a footnote, Ward doesn’t reject the first hypothesis.)

At the grassroots level in Uganda, what’s most striking is how little interest there seems to be in this aspect of the martyrs’ legacy.

“They were given a choice: your faith or your life,” said Bridget Atuhire, a Catholic attending the papal Mass on Saturday. She told Crux she didn’t even know about the king’s alleged sexual orientation.

“They were tortured and burned alive because they chose their faith, as anyone here today would,” Atuhire said, insisting that’s all that really matters.

Kalumba played down any connection between the martyrs and current tensions over sexual ethics.

“The king’s sexual morals are an interest in the West, not here,” he said, adding that he’s glad the pontiff steered clear of the topic.

Uganda is a leading example of what many gay rights activists see as a trend across Africa toward an increasingly punitive approach.

The country criminalizes same-sex relationships, and a draft bill presented in the Ugandan parliament in 2009 would have established life in prison as the penalty for even a single instance of homosexual behavior. That bill also would have decreed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” such as having gay sex with a minor or a disabled person.

At a press conference in Kampala on Friday, the relationship between the martyrs’ legacy and the current situation vis-à-vis gays and lesbians was addressed by local organizers of the papal trip.

Bishop Giuseppe Franzelli, an Italian Comboni missionary currently heading the diocese of Lira in Uganda, said the drive toward stronger anti-gay legislation in the country is being supported by “fundamentalist Christian groups and sects that come from North America,” and also by “individual Catholics, including some bishops.”

However, he said, the Catholic Church in Uganda institutionally is not behind the push for stronger criminal sanctions, saying it falls back on the classic position of “condemn the sin, but not the sinner.”

“Jesus was closer to the sinners than the righteous ones,” Franzelli said. “This is the attitude of the Church. They have to be treated with respect and love.”

Late on Saturday, during another press conference, a Vatican spokesman said that even though there was no direct references to the LGBT community in Francis’ homily, they were included in the pope’s call “to build a more just society which promotes human dignity, without excluding anyone, defends God’s gift of life, and protects the wonders of nature, his creation, and our common home.”

The promotion of human dignity, the Rev. Federico Lombardi said, “would also include people with homosexual tendencies, and it’s in line with the Church’s teaching on this issue.” The phrase “without excluding anyone,” however, was absent in the English translation provided by the Vatican.

A Spanish missionary who’s been in Uganda for several years, who asked not to be identified by name, told Crux that local Catholics don’t really care whether Pope Francis addresses homosexuality.

“This is a distraction to avoid talking about the real problems,” he said, citing poverty, corruption, inequality, forced prostitution, gender violence, and a flawed educational system as the main African challenges.

Instead of any reference to gay rights, Francis used Saturday’s homily to praise the martyrs for their willingness to pass on the faith in times of difficulty.

“Because they tended to their faith and deepened their love of God, they were fearless in bringing Christ to others, even at the cost of their lives,” Francis said as he celebrated Mass in the shrine of the Martyrs of Namugongo, some six miles from Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

“Their faith became witness,” he said. “Today, venerated as martyrs, their example continues to inspire people throughout the world.”

In a session with Ugandan youth later in the day, Francis urged them to see the martyrs as examples of how prayer can transform “bad experiences into hope.”

After hearing the stories of two young Ugandans, one of whom was kidnapped by the vicious Lord’s Resistance Army and another who lost both parents to AIDS and was born with the disease, Francis emphasized the power of prayer.

“If you need help, ask for it,” he said. “This means prayer. Prayer is the most powerful weapon a young person has.”

“Jesus loves everyone!” the pope said. “You must open your heart to him and let him in. When Jesus opens your life, he … helps fight against depression, against AIDS, [so] ask for help in overcoming these situations.”

On Sunday, Pope Francis will travel to the Central African Republic, the last stop in his first visit to Africa. Despite security concerns regarding the visit due to a civil conflict between Muslim and Christian militias, the pontiff has been adamant about making the stop.