Little support by African churches for gay rights | Africa | DW | 27.11.2012

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Little support by African churches for gay rights

In many African countries church organizations show little understanding for calls for greater rights for homosexuals, a stance which also influences political decisions. Malawi is a case in point.

"We have organized protests against homosexual rights", Father Raphael Adebayo from the Catholic church of Saint Agnes in the Nigerian city Lagos told DW. Together with other Christian denominations the Catholic community in Nigeria has actively demonstrated against homosexuality.

Father Adebayo was not prepared to elaborate on whether the Christian groups are going even further and attempting to put pressure on politicians to tighten laws on homosexuality.

An african lesbian couple (faces not shown). EPA/DAI KUROKAWA

Many African gays and lesbians prefer to remain anonymous

But he left his own feelings in no doubt: "It is impossible for the Church to support something that does not please God. It is clear that homosexuality is an abomination," the churchman stated emphatically.

"Protecting national customs"

All religions practiced in Nigeria, from Christianity and Islam to traditional African religions, reject same-sex relationships, says Jagaba Adams Jagaba. He's a Member of Parliament and chairs the Committee against Drugs, Narcotics and Financial Crimes. Because of this taboo in Nigerian society, parliament has approved a law "in order to protect national customs." People living in a homosexual relationship or who campaign for the rights of gays and lesbians may face prison sentences of up to ten years. President Goodluck Jonathan has yet to decide whether to approve the act.

The negative attitude of many churches towards homosexuality does not surprise Markus Gutfleisch, head of the German ecumenical working group "Homosexuals and Church (HuK)."

"The Catholic Church has often intervened, for example in Europe and North America, whenever a government has presented a draft law that would give homosexuals greater rights", Gutfleisch told DW. His working group finds it perfectly acceptable that churches should express their opinion about social topics. But their conservative views should not lead to human rights being violated, he warns.

Church opposition in Malawi

This dilemma also faces the Malawian government. In November this year, several local media outlets quoted the country's justice minister as saying that laws banning homosexual activities would not be enforced any longer, pending a debate in parliament.

An Amnesty International poster is seen in the foreground as a homosexual rights activist Biggie works on a computer at FARUG (Freedom and Roam Uganda) office in an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda's capital, 30 July 2010. FARUG, Uganda's lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex human rights group, has been working to push for the full equal rights of the sexual minorities and recognition of the same sex relationship in Uganda since its establishment in 2003. In October 2009, Ugandan parliamentarian David Bahati introduced a bill titled 'Anti-Homosexuality Bill' which if passed would increase and expand the penalties for already-illegal 'homosexual acts' to life imprisonment, or in some cases, the death penalty. EPA/DAI KUROKAWA

Human rights organizations oppose the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda

This prompted a negative response from the Malawian Council of Churches, which is made up of several different denominations. In the opinion of Ian, a gay man from the Malawian town of Blanka, the Council "believes that gays are not human beings and should not be allowed to be free."

Since the churches' outcry, the government seems to have back-tracked on its plan. Ian and others can only speculate whether this is a result of church pressure: "We don't know if it is still on the agenda. We can only wait and see."

Limited tolerance

According to Amnesty International, South Africa is so far the only African country in which the rights of homosexuals are laid down in the constitution and same-sex marriages are allowed.

In almost all other countries, the law foresees prison sentences for same-sex couples indulging in sexual relations. However, in many countries, such as Kenya, Tanzania and Liberia, such penalties are rarely imposed.

Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Mali are among the few African countries in which there are no laws against homosexuality.The practice is, however, frowned upon and homosexuals are treated as outcasts and sometimes attacked.

In Cameroon, gays and lesbians are subject to legal persecution. Committing sexual acts with a person of the same sex is punishable with a jail sentence of between six months and five years.

Gay rights activists in south Africs with rainbow banners. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

South Africans protest against the discrimination of gays in Malawi

A fine of up to 350 euros ($454) can be imposed. According to Human Rights Watch, 16 people were arrested in Cameroon in 2011 on suspicion of homosexuality.

Like Nigeria, Uganda is also planning to introduce a law against homosexual acts. Perpetrators of what is described as "aggravated homosexuality" could receive the death penalty. This covers homosexual acts committed by someone who is HIV-positive, who is a parent or figure of authority or who administers intoxicating substances. It also applies to homosexual acts committed on minors. In addition, any forms of homosexuality that are lived openly, such as relationships between consenting couples, can be punished with life sentences.

These plans are based on ideas put forward by Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati in 2009. Bahati is a member of the governing National Resistance Movement and enjoys good relations with influential church communities in Uganda and the US. The negative opinion of homosexuality held by religious groups is also reflected in the population at large. According to opinion polls, 90 percent of Ugandans consider homosexuality to be morally unacceptable.

Majority view stronger than human rights?

Against this background, the situation of homosexuals in Africa is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. While there can be discussion about human rights, "if almost all members of society do not agree with a certain right, then it should no longer exist." That is the answer of Nigerian parliamentarian Jagaba Adams Jagaba to questions about the rights of homosexuals.

For Nigerian priest Raphael Adebayo, there is also no doubt about this topic. "The Church can respect human rights. But if human rights conflict with God's commandments, then a judge will never support them." Father Adebayo underlines that this is the position of the Catholic church. A DW request to the Vatican for more information received only the response: " Please read the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith page on the Vatican's website."

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