Across Africa, major churches strongly oppose LGBTQ rights

In Ghana, home to a diverse array of religions, leaders of major churches have united in denouncing homosexuality as a “perversion” and endorsing legislation that would, if enacted, impose some of the harshest anti-LGBTQ policies in Africa.

In Nigeria, the umbrella body for Christian churches depicts same-sex relationships as an evil meriting the lengthy prison sentences prescribed under existing law.

And in several African countries, bishops aligned with the worldwide United Methodist Church are preparing to join an in-the-works breakaway denomination so they can continue their practice of refusing to recognize same-sex marriage or ordain LGBTQ clergy.

In the United States, Western Europe and various other regions, some prominent Protestant churches have advocated for LGBTQ inclusion. With only a few exceptions, this hasn’t happened in Africa, where Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran leaders are among those opposing such inclusion.

“They have always organized a group to maybe silence us or make the church disappear,” Omolo said. “They don’t want it to appear anywhere.”

Ghana, generally considered more respectful of human rights than most African countries, now faces scrutiny due to a bill in Parliament that would impose prison sentences ranging from three to 10 years for people identifying as LGBTQ or supporting that community. The bill has been denounced by human rights activists even as Ghanaian religious leaders rally behind it.

“Their role in perpetuating queerphobia and transphobia is clear and it’s very troubling and dangerous,” said Abena Hutchful, a Ghanaian who identifies as queer and co-organized a recent protest against the bill in New York City.

“The bill’s strongest supporters claim to be doing this in the name of religion,” says Graeme Reid, director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Rights Program. He called the measure “a case study in extreme cruelty.”

The lawmakers proposing the bill said they consulted influential religious leaders while drafting it. Among those endorsing it are the Christian Council of Ghana, the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the country’s chief imam.

“We don’t accept murderers, why should we accept somebody who is doing sex in a sinful way?” Archbishop Philip Naameh, president of the bishops’ conference, told The Associated Press. “If you take a stance which is against producing more children, it is a choice which is injurious to the existence of the Ghanaian state.”

The Christian Council — whose members include Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Anglican churches — considers homosexuality “an act of perversion and abomination,” according to its secretary general, the Rev. Dr. Cyril Fayose of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

“Homosexuality is not a human right and we reject it in all uncertain terms,” he declared earlier this year. 

In Africa’s most populous country, the Christian Association of Nigeria has threatened to sanction any church that shows tolerance for same-sex relationships.

Such acceptance “will never happen,” Methodist Bishop Stephen Adegbite, the association’s director of national issues, told the AP.

Asked about Nigeria’s law criminalizing same-sex relationships with sentences of up to 14 years in prison, Adegbite said there are no alternatives. 

“The church can never be compromised,” he declared.

Such comments dismay Nigerian LGBTQ activists such as Matthew Blaise, who told the AP of being manhandled by a Catholic priest distraught that Blaise wasn’t heterosexual.

“The church has been awful when it comes to LGBTQ issues, instead of using love as a means of communicating,” Blaise said.

In Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, Catholic Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins told the AP that Catholic teaching “recognizes in the dignity of every human person.” However, he said LGBTQ people who enter into same-sex relationships are leading “a disordered way of life” and should change their behavior.

Nigeria is home to one of the United Methodist bishops, John Wesley Yohanna, who says he plans to break away from the UMC and join the proposed Global Methodist Church. That new denomination, likely to be established next year, results from an alliance between Methodists in the United States and abroad who don’t support the LGBT-inclusive policies favored by many Methodists in the U.S.

Bishops Samuel J. Quire Jr. of Liberia and Owan Tshibang Kasap of the UMC’s Southern Congo district also have indicated they would join the breakaway.

The Rev. Keith Boyette, a Methodist elder from the United States who chairs the Global Methodist initiative, said the African bishops’ views reflect societal and cultural attitudes widely shared across the continent. 

“Same-sex orientation is viewed negatively,” he said. “That’s true whether a person is from a Christian denomination, or Muslim or from a more indigenous religion.”

In Uganda, where many LGBTQ people remain closeted for fear of violence and arrests, there is a retired Anglican bishop who in 2006 was barred from presiding over church events because he voiced empathy with gays.

In decades of ministering to embattled LGBTQ people, Christopher Senyonjo said he learned that sexuality “is a deep, important part of who we are. We should be free to let people be who they are.”

“Ignorance is a big problem in all this,” Senyonjo told the AP. “When there is ignorance, there is a lot of suffering.”

In 2014, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a harsh anti-gay law that, in its original version, prescribed the death penalty for some homosexual acts. Later that year, amid intense international pressure, a judicial panel annulled the legislation on a technicality. 

However, a colonial-era law criminalizing sex acts “against the order of nature” remains in place.

Frank Mugisha, a prominent gay activist in Uganda, described church leaders as “the key drivers of homophobia in Africa.” Some Anglican leaders, he said, have deepened their hostility toward LGBTQ people in a bid to not lose followers to aggressively anti-LGBTQ Pentecostal churches. 

In all of Africa, only one nation — South Africa — has legalized same-sex marriage. Even there, gay and lesbian couples often struggle to be accepted by churches, let alone have their marriages solemnized by clergy.

“People tell me, ‘I grew up in this church, but now I am not accepted,’” said Nokuthula Dhladhla, a pastor with the Global Interfaith Network, which advocates for LGBTQ rights within the religious sector.

She said some religious leaders are privately supportive of same-sex marriage, but reluctant to do so openly for fear of being sidelined by their more conservative peers.

South Africa’s Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, world-renowned for his opposition to apartheid, has been an outspoken supporter of LGBTQ rights.

“I would not worship a God who is homophobic,” he once said. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say ‘Sorry, I would much rather go to the other place.’”

Caroline Omolo, the activist pastor in Nairobi, said some Kenyan religious leaders blame LGBTQ people for the coronavirus pandemic.

“When we say we are still serving God, they don’t see something that’s possible,” she said. “They think it’s something unfamiliar and should be stopped.”

However, she said some faculty and students at Kenya’s theological schools support her LGBTQ church, which has about 300 members.

“The students, we call them the future generation, leaders of tomorrow,” she said. “When we have that population on our side, I believe there’s nothing that can shake us.”