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Gay Bishop Controversy Shakes African Anglican Community - 2004-02-02

The consecration of a homosexual bishop in the United States late last year has divided the world's 80 million-member Anglican community, and threatens to split the 450-year-old church. Leading the conservative rebellion against gays in the church is popular Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, the head of the world's largest Anglican community, or province. Lisa Bryant reports that the church's anti-gay attitude reflects a widespread prejudice against homosexuals in Africa.

For a few hours on Sunday, the Anglican cathedral of Lagos offers refuge from the sticky heat and milling crowds choking Africa's largest city. Inside the stately gray building, fans stir the sluggish air as worshipers bend down in earnest prayer.

But last year's ordination of openly gay American bishop Gene Robinson has shaken the world's Anglican community. The controversy exposes a deepening fault line between conservative Christianity thriving in Africa and many parts of the developing world, and more liberal doctrines preached elsewhere.

Nigerian primate Peter Akinola is leading the conservative wing. Last year, he severed relations with a Canadian diocese for accepting homosexuals and Mr. Robinson's New Hampshire diocese of the Episcopalian church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican church. He called Mr. Robinson's ordination "a satanic attack on the church of God."

Lagos Archbishop Adebola Ademowo says Mr. Akinola's position is firmly backed by other church leaders of Nigeria's Anglican community, which claims more than 17 million members.

"We have said homosexuality is unscriptural. I have not seen any member of our church in this country who will feel very bold to come out openly and say he is a practicing homosexual," said Archbishop Ademowo. "We emphasize the importance of the scriptures. The people should not be hearers of the word God alone, they should be doers of the word."

Many other churches in the developing world share the views of Nigeria's Anglican church, as do conservative branches in the United States and elsewhere. Should the Anglican church formally split over homosexuality, some people believe Nigeria's Akinola would lead a conservative spinoff.

In Africa, gay rights groups say the Anglican furor underscores a long-standing intolerance of homosexuality on the continent, held by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Kursad Kahramanoglu, the London-based secretary general of the International Lesbian and Gay Alliance, said people in general are conservative and want to stick with the status quo. "And the status quo says that lesbians, gays, and so on are second-class citizens and they can be used as scapegoats for the other ills of the country. Zimbabwe, as we all know, has an incredibly big problems, economic problems, democracy problems, and so on, and it suits the president of Zimbabwe to regularly attack LGBT people," he said, referring to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.

In Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, homosexuality is branded as a Western import or the work of black magic. But gay rights activists say it has always existed on the continent. Some Hausa men in northern Nigeria, for example, traditionally sought the services of so-called 'Dan Daudus,' or male homosexual prostitutes.

Nigeria's fledgling gay rights group, Alliance Rights Nigeria, keeps a low profile, posting no office address and the few willing to speak to reporters do so only under an assumed name.

There is good reason for their anonymity. Homosexuality is not only socially unacceptable, it is against the law in Nigeria and in many other African countries. Only South Africa, with one of the world's most progressive gay-right legislation, stands as an African exception.

At the Anglican cathedral in Lagos, parishioner Obarou Adjarhu says homosexuality is a sin and he firmly supports Archbishop Akinola's condemnation of the gay American bishop.

"Those are the sins of Sodom and Gomorra," he said. "And for a bishop, or a person of that caliber in the church giving communion to come out openly and say he is gay, or even if he is doing it behind [i.e., in the closet], is a sin before God and man," he commented.

Nearby, 58-year-old businessman John Adeneji, shares Mr. Adjarhu's sentiments. He argues Bishop Robinson must be dismissed.

"We might be poor in this country, but we are enlightened enough to know what is good and bad," said Mr. Adeneji. "In my opinion, they should sack the bishop. Throw him back. That would make sense. I am not saying he can not be a member of the Anglican church. But not hold important positions."

Many Muslim leaders in Nigeria also condemn homosexuality. But Mr. Kahramanoglu, of the gay alliance, argues churches and other religious establishments are paying a steep price for homophobia.

"The practical result is that it ends up ... many of the believing LGBT people staying away and not contributing to the church," he said. "And both sides are losing. Because in Africa alone there are hundreds of thousands of gays, bisexuals, transsexual people who also happen to be believers."

More recently, a number of African religious leaders have begun speaking about sexual activity in general to their congregations, as part of HIV/AIDS awareness messages. A few are even beginning to discuss the subject of homosexuality.

That is particularly true in South Africa, which is fighting one of the world's most serious AIDS epidemic, and where gay couples enjoy near-equal legal status with heterosexuals.

Mr. Kahramanoglu believes greater democracy in Africa will also give new opportunities for gay activists to speak out. Gay rights groups are slowly forming across Africa, he says, even though they are rarely seen or heard.