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Religion, politics and Africa's homophobia

Anti-gay demonstration in Jinja, Kampala, 17/02
Barack Obama's criticism of Uganda's anti-gay bill led to rallies in East Africa

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Johannesburg

Since a Ugandan MP proposed the death penalty for some gay people, homophobia has been on the rise in other parts of Africa.

Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama's criticism of the Ugandan proposals led to huge anti-gay rallies in neighbouring Kenya.

Soon after, rumours of a gay wedding near the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa resulted in several arrests - although no evidence was produced and no-one was charged.

Pastor Martin Ssempa
Rights groups criticise Pastor Martin Ssempa's fiery rhetoric

For the past few weeks, police in Malawi have been openly pursuing gay activists and anyone suspected of being homosexual.

The Malawian authorities say gay activists should be more open - but say if they do come out into the open they will be arrested because homosexuality is illegal.

Monica Mbaru, from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, describes these crackdowns as a ripple effect from the Uganda situation.

She says many African leaders and communities remain hostile to gay people because of pressure from religious leaders.

"Our politicians have great respect for religious leaders and are careful not to disagree with them, especially not on homosexuality," she says.

"So they pretend that homosexuals do not exist or that they can be 'cured' and communicate this message to the community."

'Flush out gays'

Both Christian and Muslim clerics have publicly condemned homosexuality for many years - describing it as a sin, abnormal or immoral.

One of the most extreme examples of religious leaders advocating repression of gay people is Ugandan Pastor Martin Ssempa.

When you deny people the right to be who they are, you are forcing them underground and ultimately they rebel
Monica Mbaru
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission

He openly endorses Uganda's anti-gay bill, and last week screened gay pornography at a church in Kampala to drum up support for the proposed legislation.

In Kenya, too, religious leaders have been at the heart of anti-gay campaigns.

In a statement last week, US-based Human Rights Watch quoted witnesses as saying Christian and Muslim leaders had joined together to call for communities to "flush out gays".

The group wrote to the Kenyan government calling on it to end the attacks on gay people, which it described as planned rather than spontaneous.

"The police need to arrest the attackers and put a halt to what appears to be a co-ordinated nationwide attack on people perceived to be homosexual," said HRW's Dipika Nath.

No understanding

While HRW describes a climate of fear in Kenya's gay community, other rights groups say the upsurge in homophobia is encouraging gay-rights campaigners to be more forceful.

Gay rights campaigners in London
Rights activists around the world have condemned the Uganda proposals

Ms Mbaru says activists are rising up against homophobia.

"Many see this as unjust and have begun to co-ordinate with each other and put pressure on retrogressive societies," she says.

"When you deny people the right to be who they are, you are forcing them underground and ultimately they rebel."

Gay-rights group Behind the Mask believes there is a lack of understanding of gay issues, fuelled by misrepresentations in the press and fiery speeches by religious leaders.

I am a preacher I should be spreading love, not hate
Reverend Michael Kimundu

"When many hear the word homosexual they immediately think of sodomy, paedophilia," says the organisation's Noma Pakade.

"They don't understand that a homosexual relationship can be a commitment between two consenting adults based on love, just as it is with heterosexuals."

Homosexuality is illegal in many African countries - particularly Arab North Africa and those with a British colonial past such as Kenya, Uganda and Malawi.

British colonial legislators outlawed "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal".

It is that law which Uganda is now proposing to strengthen, from a 14-year sentence to prison to life.

The bill also proposes the death penalty for a new offence of "aggravated homosexuality" - defined as when one of the participants is a minor, HIV-positive, disabled or a "serial offender".

'Love, not hate'

There are small pockets of resistance within the religious community - but theirs is a hard fight.

Reverend Michael Kimundu served the Anglican Church in Mtwapa, Kenya, for 30 years.

Gay Ugandan, 02/02
To make his point, one gay Ugandan did a news conference in a paper bag

But recently the Church expelled him because leaders found out that he headed a religious organisation called The Other Sheep, which preaches tolerance towards gay people.

"I am a preacher I should be spreading love, not hate - that is why I don't believe in treating the homosexual community with disdain," he says.

"My Church didn't want to be associated with such beliefs.

"Because of my stance I have had many people accuse me and many of the pastors I work with of being gay because we refuse to let this injustice continue."

Rev Kimundu says he has not had an income for some months, but says his sacking was a blessing.

"I'm free to minister and give counselling to whoever I want to now without worrying what conflict it will cause with my leaders," he says.

"Educating the community and breaking the myths about homosexuality is my calling."



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SEE ALSO
Uganda cleric shows gay porn film
18 Feb 10 |  Africa
Kenya 'gay union' suspects freed
17 Feb 10 |  Africa
Obama: Uganda gays bill 'odious'
04 Feb 10 |  Africa

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