Uganda's draconian anti-homosexuality bill has the potential to destroy thousands of lives. The church must speak up
Every day millions of Christians pray to be spared from being put to the test. For some in Uganda, where an anti-homosexuality bill (pdf) is being put to parliament, this prayer may be especially deeply felt. This extremely unpleasant proposed law targets not only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people but also human rights and Aids prevention activists and people in positions of trust. While some in the church are backing the bill, other Christians face a challenge to the principles at the heart of their faith.
Seventeen local and international human rights groups, including Sexual Minorities Uganda, have condemned the move. "This draft bill is clearly an attempt to divide and weaken civil society by striking at one of its most marginalised groups. The government may be starting here, but who will be next?" said Scott Long of Human Rights Watch. Gay sex is already illegal in Uganda, and can result in long prison sentences. The bill broadens the definition to include any form of sexual relations between people of the same sex, which could result in life imprisonment, and threatens those guilty of "promotion of homosexuality" with up to seven years in prison, an attack on freedom of expression which would also damage Aids prevention efforts.
A new offence of "aggravated homosexuality" would carry the death penalty, covering sex with someone under 18 or who is disabled or in the case of a "serial offender". This also undermines the right of disabled adults capable of informed consent to enjoy intimate relationships, insultingly reducing them to the status of "victims". Any "person in authority" aware of an offence under the new law who did not report it to the authorities could face three years' imprisonment, including anyone who exercises "religious, political, economic or social authority". So a pastor who found out that someone in his congregation or community was gay or lesbian would be required to betray that person to possible imprisonment or death, or risk his own freedom. The bill would not only destroy LGBT people but also undermine others' integrity and humanity.
The law would apply not only within Uganda but also to Ugandans abroad. Some commentators believe it is being used to divert attention from ongoing social problems and intensify repression in the run-up to the next elections.
The bill is a particular challenge for Christians because clergy have helped to whip up fear and hatred and undermine respect for human rights. Nicodemus Okille, Dean of the Province of Uganda, in his Christmas sermon in 2007 as Bishop of Bukedi, reportedly condemned advocates of gay rights as having no place in the kingdom of God. "The team of homosexuals is very rich," claimed Archbishop Henry Orombi in 2008. "They have money and will do whatever it takes to make sure that this vice penetrates Africa. We have to stand out and say no to them." However Anglican Bishop Stanley Ntagali of Masindi-Kitara diocese has recently spoken out against the death penalty for homosexuality, while supporting imprisonment.
The bill also poses a challenge to those throughout the world with economic, social or political links to Uganda. This includes Christian leaders overseas who have helped to give credibility to homophobic Ugandan bishops and pastors while supposedly proclaiming a message of love and justice for all. Some US evangelists have endorsed Pastor Martin Ssempa, an anti-LGBT crusader. Anglican leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury have avoided challenging their Ugandan associates' complicity in anti-LGBT abuses while soundly condemning Anglican provinces moving towards equality for all.
Sixty years ago, the Anglican Communion was at the forefront of the drive for universal human rights. Though commitment to rights for all, including LGBT people, has been repeatedly endorsed at international gatherings, and many churches are passionately committed, it now tends to be referred to in vague terms by top leaders. But they will have to decide how to respond to this legislation, especially since their own Ugandan-born clergy and parishioners will be affected. What they do, or fail to do, will affect their ability to witness to a God who does not abandon the abused and exploited. These are testing times.