News / Africa

Anti-Gay Sentiment Flares in Ethiopia as Addis Ababa Preps for AIDS Conference

Ethiopian orphans Endashew (R) and his sister Yeshiwork, who lost both their parents to HIV/AIDS, sit outside their family house near the capital Addis Ababa, June 2005. (file photo)
Ethiopian orphans Endashew (R) and his sister Yeshiwork, who lost both their parents to HIV/AIDS, sit outside their family house near the capital Addis Ababa, June 2005. (file photo)

Ethiopia's religious leaders have abruptly canceled a news conference called to denounce a planned meeting of gay rights activists on the fringes of an international meeting on AIDS. Ethiopia's attitude toward homosexuality is shaping up as a potential flash point as some of the world's leading experts gather to discuss trends in AIDS treatment and prevention.

The leaders of Ethiopia's main religious denominations faced journalists briefly in an Addis Ababa conference room Tuesday. Abune Paulos, the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was there, along with representatives of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, the Roman Catholic Church, and Protestant denominations.

But before anything could be said, Ethiopia's Health Minister Tewodros Adhanom arrived and asked for a word with the religious leaders in private.

Abrupt postponement

After nearly an hour, the leaders left without comment. The Reverend Iteffa Gobena Molte, president of the Ethiopian Evangelical Council Mekane Yesus told reporters the event would be rescheduled.

"It's postponed to another time. And when they are ready they will call upon you to come and record them," said Iteffa.

Reporters initially were told the news conference had been called to condemn a planned conference on "men who have sex with men."  

The website of a group called the African Men for Sexual Health and Rights, or AMSHER, says the meeting is to be held Saturday at an Addis Ababa hotel. A list of speakers posted on the website include Michel Sidibe, director of UNAIDS, and Eric Goosby, the United States Global AIDS Coordinator.

Fighting AIDS

That gathering was to coincide with the 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa, which opens Sunday in the Ethiopian capital. More than 8,000 experts and activists are expected to attend, and former U.S. President George W. Bush is slated to be an honored guest.

The sudden cancelation of the news briefing underscores Ethiopia's strong anti-gay sentiment. At a 2008 meeting with reporters, many of the same religious leaders urged passage of a constitutional amendment banning homosexuality.

News reports at the time quoted the clergy as calling homosexuality “the pinnacle of immorality.” Ethiopian Orthodox leader Paulos was quoted as condemning gay sex, saying, “for people to act in this manner, they have to be stupid, like animals."

Condemnation of gay sex

Reverend Iteffa said Ethiopian Protestants believe homosexuality is unnatural.

"The Protestant church teaches about homosexuality that it is not God's creation. God had created man and woman. So that is the proper creation and it continues to be there, and the Bible explicitly says in many parts of the Bible, so we claim that to be our faith as a Protestant," he said.

A statement distributed to reporters at Tuesday's canceled news conference quoted a survey showing 97 percent of Ethiopians consider gay behavior immoral. It said scheduling a conference on homosexuality in Addis Ababa shows a disregard for Ethiopia's laws and morals.

An email asking for AMSHER's response was not immediately answered.

An official standing outside Tuesday's news conference site suggested that the intervention of the Health Ministry, a major backer of the AIDS conference, indicates that the AMSHER meeting might not take place. A call to the hotel being advertised as the meeting site showed no facilities are currently reserved in AMSHER's name.

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