In Africa, homophobia goes beyond church

By ELIZABETH BRYANT, United Press International

LAGOS, Nigeria, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Obarou Adjarhu carries a Bible under one arm, and he knows what it says. It says homosexuality is a sin, according to Adjarhu's reading.

Today. Tomorrow. And as far as the 32-year-old Nigerian businessman is concerned, forever.


"Those are the sins of Sodom and Gomorra," he said on the steps of Lagos' Anglican cathedral, before facing the skittering traffic and inching crowds of a Lagos Sunday morning. "For a bishop to come out openly and say he is gay is a sin before God and man."

The bishop in question, Gene Robinson, lives in far-off New Hampshire. But he is no stranger to the Cathedral's boubou-and-suit- clad congregation that has just spent two hours praising the Lord. Or to Nigeria's Anglican hierarchy, which is leading a growing rebellion against accepting gays in the church.


The controversy, raised a notch with the November ordination of Robinson, an openly gay bishop, exposes a deepening fault line between conservative Christianity flourishing in many developing countries and more liberal doctrines preached elsewhere. But it also underscores a long-standing intolerance of homosexuality in Africa, which carries very secular implications. In a continent where up to 30 percent of population may be infected with HIV/AIDS, an apparently small but growing population risks being sidelined.

"I think homosexuality is becoming more rampant here," said Bisi Tugbobo, deputy country director of Pathfinder International in Lagos, a non-governmental organization working to combat HIV/AIDS. "You hear about it. You read about it in the papers. But people don't want to talk about it. Not in the churches. Not in the mosques. Even some NGOs are reluctant to discuss homosexuality."

There is little outward evidence of Nigeria's gay community. Not on crowded city streets, or in public schools, where memories linger of the 2002 killing of a gay university student in northern Jigawa state.

Alliance Rights Nigeria, a fledgling gay rights group, advertises no office address. Efforts to reach members by phone proved impossible. Those giving rare interviews to the media use pseudonyms.

Gays are certainly not welcome in Nigeria's 17-million-member Anglican church, the world's largest Anglican "province." Nigeria's Anglican primate, Archbishop Peter Akinola, has condemned Robinson's consecration as a "satanic attack on the church of God."


Last year, Akinola severed relations both with Robinson's New Hampshire diocese, and with a Canadian one for accepting homosexuals. Should the church formally split over homosexuality, 59-year-old Akinola -- whose church is credited with tripling Nigeria's Anglican community over the past 20 years -- is considered the likely leader of a conservative spin-off.

"Homosexuality is a deviation from the scriptures," said Adebola Ademowo, Archbishop of Lagos, in an interview at his spacious office near the cathedral. "And we are not alone in this belief. All the other denominations here are just enthused with our stance. They are praying with us."

But Kursad Kahramanoglu, the London-based secretary general of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, argues Ademowo and other conservative African leaders are paying a steep price for inflexibility.

"There are hundreds of thousands of lesbians, gays and bisexuals who also happen to be believers," Kahramanoglu said. "But they are staying away, not contributing to churches that say horrible things about them, their lifestyles and those they love. Both sides are losing."

Like many African countries, homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria, branded as a Western import or the work of black magic. Sodomy carries up to 14 years in prison here, though sentences are seldom meted out.


Only South Africa, with one the world's most progressive gay rights legislation, stands as an African exception. In neighboring Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe once branded gays "worse than pigs and dogs."

Patience Fehintola, 62, elegant in a tan dress and matching hat, is only slightly politer.

"Homosexuality is a spiritual sickness," she said. "It needs first of all repentance and soul cleansing. I'm disappointed in the American Anglican community."

Such condemnations are echoed widely among both Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, a country where religion permeates everyday life.

Dilapidated trucks stumble down the nation's pitted roads, painted with colorful, hopeful slogans. "Jesus is the Only Way," read one collapsed hulk, being pushed near the southern city of Calabar.

Further east, football-sized prayer grounds line the highway outside Lagos, packing in thousands for righteous messages from evangelical preachers. Even newspapers attack immorality.

"We call on the Christian faithful here and elsewhere, to guard their loins against the wiles of the evil one," wrote The Daily Times of Nigeria of homosexuality, in a recent "virtuality digest."

In the north, where a dozen states have adopted Islamic Sharia law, Sharia council head Hakeem Baba-Ahmed said accepting homosexuality "will lead to a further erosion of our accepted principles of morality."


Not surprisingly, Nigerian religious leaders beginning to preach HIV/AIDS awareness to their congregations generally shy from discussing homosexuality. Nearly 6 percent of Nigerians, or roughly 4 million people, are infected with the virus. But the message coming from the Lagos cathedral and from most pulpits in Africa is abstinence.

"The most important thing is to encourage people to live holy lives, lives of chastity," Ademowo, the Lagos archbishop said. "That should supersede any other consideration."

AIDS activists list homosexuality as a minor variable in a tangle of high-risk activities on the continent, starting with unprotected heterosexual sex. But the very invisibility of gays poses a danger.

"They're the hidden face of the iceberg," said Dr. Elisabeth Szumilien, of the Paris-based Medecins Sans Frontiere, who works on HIV/AIDS issues in southern and eastern Africa. "We can't target homosexuals because we don't see them."

Out of sight, African homosexuals are unable to shed new light on the virus -- as did their counterparts in the West.

"By pushing these people underground, African countries lose the chance to learn from homosexuals," Kahramanoglu, of the international gay association said. "And in the case of AIDS, ignorance equals death."

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