Malawi Bishops’ Anti-Gay Remarks Raise Human Rights Issues

January 4, 2016
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Bishop Mathews Mtumbuka

LGBT communities in a number of African nations face some of the world’s most oppressive contexts. Worse yet, socially-sanctioned discrimination and violence are supported and even encouraged by religious leadership. Two recent incidents in Malawi, which is 20% Catholic, reveal how church officials contribute to homophobia and transphobia.

Bishop Mathews Mtumbuka of Karonga told a women’s gathering that lesbian and gay people are “sinners who need to repent,” adding that Scripture’s condemnation of homosexuality is clear. These comments come just as the nation’s government dropped charges against Cuthert Kulemeka and Kelvin Gonani for homosexual activity, both of whom were forced to undergo invasive physical examinations while in custody reported All Africa

In a separate incident, Bishop Montfort Sitima of Mangochi addressed homosexuality negatively in a homily last Sunday, according to All Africa. Despite saying the church “does not hate” gay people, the bishop applauded a Catholic musician, Lucius Banda, who cancelled a concert on Christmas Day after observing two male audience members kissing each other. A human rights advocate noted that it would very unlikely for a gay couple to kiss publicly in Malawi, and suggested that the whole event was staged to stir up anti-gay sentiments, according to Nyasa Times.  Banda is a member of Malawi’s Parliament.

Sitima also said Malawi’s government “should not sell out our culture and our religion in exchange for money,” referencing the generally false but popular notion that Western foreign aid is tied to LGBT human rights. This connection between LGBT human rights and international aid was explicitly included in the Synod on the Family’s Final Report, presumably at the insistence of African bishops who present it as a new form of colonialism.

This reality of LGBT oppression, Catholic leaders’ complicity, and the colonial history of unjust Western interventions in Africa raise questions about how LGBT advocates in the U.S. can justly respond.

A recent article in The New York Times claimed that U.S support for LGBT human rights is backfiring in Africa, where the federal government has spent more than $350 million since 2012. Private support is increasing, too, as U.S. advocates seek to work internationally, following major victories at home. This work seeks, in part, to counter influential U.S.-funded Evangelical groups promoting anti-gay laws abroad.

Increased visibility is actually leading to more anti-LGBT discrimination and violence in the estimation of some advocates. Rev. Kapya Kaoma of the U.S.-based Political Research Associates suggested that “African L.G.B.T. persons are just collateral damage to U.S. politics on both ends.”

Frank Mugisha

Frank Mugisha

But not all agree, including Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda, who is Catholic and wrote in The New York Times:

“There will always be backlash to activism. That is not news.

“Instead of elevating the significance of American influence, it would have been better if the article had focused on African politicians who employ any narrative at their disposal — including ‘neocolonial’ ones — to maintain their power at the expense of scapegoated minorities like L.G.B.T.I. people, regardless of what the United States may, or may not, do.

“Is there more violence now that L.G.B.T.I. people are more visible in Nigeria and elsewhere? Maybe, but it is homophobia, not funding, that is at fault.”

Catholic officials could easily be added to the African politicians Mugisha labeled as those who use anti-LGBT sentiments for their own purposes. In conveying church teachings on homosexuality, church leaders like Bishop Mtumbuka too often rely on a biblical fundamentalism at odds with Catholic principles for scriptural interpretation. They ignore, almost entirely, relevant Catholic teachings about LGBT people related to social justice. Bishops like Bishop Sitima employ false narratives, like homosexuality being a Western import or Western governments denying aid to nations without marriage equality, with dangerous repercussions. Neither one of the Malawian bishops condemned the human rights abuses enacted against Cuthert Kulemeka and Kelvin Gonani, even though their treatment was contradictory to Catholic teaching.

Why do Catholic bishops in Africa behave in this fashion? There are likely many as many reasons as bishops. Perhaps the expansion of Evangelical churches in Africa has something to do with their statements. Christianity is exponentially exploding among Africans, and denominations are fighting for adherents. Established Catholic and Protestant churches are struggling to retain adherents against successful Evangelical and Pentecostal efforts. Similar to politicians scapegoating LGBT people for electoral victories, Catholic officials may fear being seen as ‘weak’ on homosexuality.

These complex situations leave U.S. and other Western LGBT advocates puzzled when it comes to human rights work in Malawi, Uganda, and other nations which criminalize and stigmatize minority sexual and gender identities. Frank Mugisha makes clear, though, that, ultimately, we are united in the fight against homophobia and transphobia wherever we live.

For Catholics, as members of the universal church, we cannot abandon this work as long as oppression exists. Moving forward, we must ensure that not only the ends we seek, but the means  with which we seek them, are just on all accounts. Catholic Social Teaching is one of the richest sources for figuring out how to do just that, and the Year of Mercy is the perfect time to recommit to seeking justice for LGBT people around the world.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Pope Francis “Missed an Opportunity” on Papal Visit to Africa

December 10, 2015
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Pope Francis greeting crowds in Uganda

LGBT advocates are saying Pope Francis missed an opportunity to preach tolerance and save LGBT lives because he remained silent during his Apostolic Voyage to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic which ended just over a week ago.

Pepe Julian Onziema of Sexual Minorities Uganda told the Washington Blade:

“. . . I feel he missed an opportunity to be specific about his stand on the issue, by publicly discussing the continued persecution of LGBT people in Uganda. . .If he’s not done it publicly in Uganda, I don’t see him doing so anywhere else.”

Onziema added he had not had much hope for positive statements because the pontiff, in his estimation, is “wishy washy” on LGBT rights.

Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, had sought to meet with Pope Franci, a;ong with other LGBT advocates. He told Al Jazeera:

“Yes, I am disappointed. It would have been a very good gesture and the start of a conversation with the Catholic Church on accepting LGBTI Catholics in the Church.

“I would have told the pope that Ugandans love him so much, and so do LGBTI Ugandans, and we – all Ugandans – want the same things: to live with each other in peace. So, the churches that discriminate against us the most should preach tolerance and acceptance.”

Advocates in the U.S. echoed Onziema, Mugisha, and others’ disappointment in Pope Francis. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told the Blade:

“Pope Francis usually is much more courageous and direct in confronting controversial issues, especially when bishops have acted poorly, as the Ugandan bishops have done in regard to ignoring the human rights of LGBT people.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, said Pope Francis speaking out “would have made a huge difference globally.”

While Catholic teaching disavows discrimination against LGBT people, including the criminalization of homosexuality, as Mumbai’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias made clear recently, Uganda’s church leaders have acted differently.

Frank-Mugisha

Frank Mugisha

Mugisha, who is Catholic (and was featured in Bondings 2.0‘s first Advent reflection this year for his courageous witness), explained the situation in his country which is more than 40% Catholic. He told Al Jazeera:

“Church is a place for love, for refuge and for peace and support, but that support is not given to them. They feel they have been let down by the Church a lot. . .

“The Catholic Church in Uganda has been in alliance with all the other churches in condemning and discriminating against LGBTI persons. The language that preachers use and the anti-gay statements make people who are even in the closet feel discriminated against.”

Thes discrimination and violence, fueled by Catholic and U.S.-based Evangelical churches includes “hate crimes, arrest, blackmail and extortion, public humiliation” and being outed in the media. Additionally, in Uganda, a highly religious nation, lacking affiliation with a church can exclude one from society at large. Mugisha revealed discrimination he faces specifically in the Catholic Church, saying priests will preach against homosexuality if they know he is attending Mass.

But this high religiosity also means that Ugandans listen closely to Pope Francis’ words. If he had spoken out, they would have taken a message of tolerance towards LGBT people “seriously,” said Mugisha To not have spoken out “will go down in history,” he told Citizen.

LGBT advocates in Uganda and Kenya repeatedly sought words of tolerance from the pope. The Rainbow Catholic Network of Africa appealed to Francis for mercy and inclusion. People of faith worldwide had asked Pope Francis to condemn anti-LGBT laws through New Ways Ministry’s #PopeSpeakOut campaign. The pope’s decision not to respond, covered in more detail here, is troubling despite an otherwise remarkable papal visit.

Pope Francis’ silence is especially problematic because that same week Uganda’s Parliament passed the Non-Governmental Organizations Bill in the middle of the night.  Since the bill allows the government to dissolve community groups at will, critics fear it will be used to curtail LGBT advocacy, reported PinkNews.

Though Pope Francis missed an opportunity to save LGBT people’s lives and promote their dignity, some Catholic bishops are speaking out. Cardinal Gracias’ opposition to LGBT criminalization in India is quite notable, as he is the subcontinent’s only religious leader to preach tolerance. Maltese Bishop Mario Grech gave a positive interview in recent days, too.

Most hopeful are the many and varied good works of the People of God happening locally. Some make headlines, but most are quietly planted and lovingly cultivated in communities. Pope Francis should consider how he can help water these seeds during the Year of Mercy. It is always the right time to speak out for LGBT people’s lives and dignity.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Uganda’s ‘Kill the Gays’ Bill Is Postponed

December 14, 2012

The Ugandan Parliament closed its session today without taking action on the controversial proposed “Kill the Gays” bill, which would have imposed severe sentences, including the death penalty, for lesbian and gay people in that African nation.

The Montreal Gazette reports the reaction of one of Uganda’s LGBT leaders:

Frank Mugisha

Frank Mugisha

“ ‘This bill won’t stop us,’ said Frank Mugisha, Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), . . . . ‘We will continue to fight until we are free of this legislation. We cannot have oppression forever.’ ”

According to blogger Warren Throckmorton:

“. . . the Anti-Homosexuality Bill will not have a second reading until at least February of next year.”

So the good news is that the bill has been forestalled.  The bad news is that the fight to prevent it from becoming law must still continue.

New Ways Ministry continues to ask you to write to your bishop to ask him to try to persuade the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican to speak against this bill.  The Ugandan bishops, whose record on this bill has been ambiguous, still have on their website a statement against the bill from 2009, when it was first introduced.   Though they oppose the bill, the language and argument of their statement is extremely negative toward homosexuality.

Please continue your prayers and advocacy on this important issue into the new year.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 


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