Last edited: December 30, 2004

Nigerian Anglicans Leading Resistance to Gays in Church

17 million members have worldwide clout

Homosexuals reviled in most of Africa

Toronto 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 outside.

“Kyrie eleison,” they sing. “Christe eleison.” Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

But mercy has its limits, it seems, when it comes to homosexuality.

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 HIV/AIDS.

“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 homosexuality.”

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 state.

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 us.”

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 inflexibility.

“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 man.”

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 life.

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 discussing homosexuality.

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 death.”

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