Nigerian Anglicans Leading Resistance to Gays in Church
17 million members have worldwide clout
Homosexuals reviled in most of Africa
Star, February 1, 2004
One Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario M5E 1E6 Canada
By Elizabeth Bryant, Special To The Star
LAGOS, Nigeria—For a few hours on
Sunday mornings, the Anglican cathedral of Lagos offers refuge from the sticky
heat and unrelenting crowds choking Africa’s largest city.
Inside the stately gray building, fans push out sluggish
air, as a congregation clad in pastel boubous and dark suits bends earnestly
in prayer. An all-male choir muffles the screeching, skittering traffic
“Kyrie eleison,” they sing. “Christe eleison.”
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.
But mercy has its limits, it seems, when it comes to
Home to the world’s largest Anglican province, Nigeria
is leading the resistance against accepting gays in the church.
The controversy, raised a notch with the November
ordination of an openly gay New Hampshire 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 per cent of the 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 nongovernmental organization working to combat
“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
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
A fledgling gay rights group, Alliance Rights Nigeria,
advertises no office address. Reaching members by phone proved impossible.
Those giving rare interviews to the press use pseudonyms.
Gays are certainly not welcome in Nigeria’s 17
million-member Anglican church, whose primate, Archbishop Peter Akinola,
condemned the consecration of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as an openly gay
bishop as a “satanic attack on the church of God.”
Akinola severed relations both with Robinson’s New
Hampshire diocese and with a Canadian one last year for accepting homosexuals.
Should the church formally split over homosexuality,
59-year-old Akinola—whose church has tripled in membership over the past two
decades—is considered the likely leader of a conservative spinoff.
“Homosexuality is a deviation from the Scriptures,”
Adebola Ademowo, archbishop of Lagos, said 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
But Kursad Kahramanoglu, the London-based secretary
general of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, argues that Ademowo
and other conservative church leaders are paying a steep price for
“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.”
As in 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, although
sentences are seldom meted out.
Only South Africa, with one of the world’s most
progressive gay rights statutes, stands as an African exception.
But in neighbouring Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe
once branded gays “worse than pigs and dogs.”
On the steps of the Lagos cathedral, 32-year-old Obarou
Adjarhu offered only a slightly more polite reaction.
“The word of God says homosexuality is a sin,” said
Adjarhu, a salesman from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, as he emerged from a
two-hour Sunday morning service.
“Yesterday, today and forever. For a bishop or a person
of that calibre to come out openly and say he’s gay is a sin before God and
Nearby Patience Fehintola, 62, elegant in a tan dress and
matching hat, agreed.
“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
Dilapidated trucks stumble down the nation’s pitted
roads, painted with colourful, hopeful slogans. “Jesus is the Only Way,”
reads one collapsed hulk being pushed near the southern city of Calabar.
Farther 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 (sic) their loins against the wiles of the evil one,” The Daily
Times of Nigeria wrote 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 away from
Nearly 6 per cent of sexually active 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,” said Ademowo, the Lagos archbishop.
“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 Doctors Without Borders, 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 also 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,” said Kahramanoglu, of the
international gay association. “And in the case of AIDS, ignorance equals
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