NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) Religious leaders in Africa strongly rebuked
President Obama’s call to decriminalize homosexuality, suggesting it’s
the reason why he received a less-than-warm welcome during a recent trip
to the continent.
In a news conference in Senegal during his three-nation tour, just as
the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on same-sex marriage,
Obama said African nations must grant equal protection to all people
regardless of their sexual orientation.
“My basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion,
regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to
how the law treats you, how the state treats you … people should be
treated equally,” Obama said. “And that’s a principle that I think
But Obama’s words rubbed religious and political leaders the wrong
way. In Senegal, the West African nation where Islam is the predominant
religion, homosexuality is a crime.
Christianity and Islam are growing fast on the continent, and
religious leaders in both faith communities responded with vehement
Indeed, some clerics said Obama’s statements on gays spoiled the
welcome religious leaders and their followers could have accorded the
first African-American president.
“For religious leaders, in my point of view, this issue of
homosexuality which he mentioned had really blocked the hospitality
which the religious leaders desired to reserve for him,” said the Rev.
Pierre Adama Faye, a Senegalese Lutheran leader.
Faye said he understood Obama’s remarks coming on the heels of the
Supreme Court rulings. But he said Africa has its own reality, different
from that of the U.S. In Senegal, churches and mosques reject the
Homosexuality is illegal in 37 African countries, according to the
Washington-based Council for Global Equality, and many religious leaders
here view it as contrary to scriptures and custom.
Sheikh Saliou Mbacke, a Senegalese Muslim leader who coordinates the
Interfaith Action for Peace in Africa, said faith leaders have the duty
to speak out, especially if outside forces want to impose their will.
“The subject of homosexuality must not be used as a tool to blackmail
and coerce society to defy God’s command, which is more important than
any world power,” he said. “We will oppose any manner of arm-twisting
that threatens us to embrace it in our societies.”
In Nairobi, Roman Catholic Cardinal John Njue voiced similar
concerns, and said Africans must be allowed to forge their own consensus
on the subject.
“I think we need to act according to our own traditions and even our
own faiths,” he said. “This is very important. We have to be proud of
who we are.”
In Tanzania, Anglican Bishop Michael Hafidh of Dar es Salaam said
religious leaders followed Obama’s tour closely and would have preferred
for Obama to stick to trade and economic issues.
Homosexuality, said Hafidh, “is not an important issue for us now. We
don’t recognize or even think of it, let alone its legalization. I
think since we have a lot of resources, our discussions with the rest of
the world should be more about investments and trade.”
The Rev.Victor Ndlovu, a Roman Catholic priest in Johannesburg, South
Africa, where gay marriage is legal, said homosexuality has become a
human rights issue in the West and many religious leaders are anxious
about how that might affect their congregations.
“They are worried what will become of the past in which the practice
has been a taboo,” he said. “In reality, it exists in Africa, but the
question is what we do when a man has said he wants to marry a man. It
is a delicate balance.”
According to Ndlovu, Africa needs to open discussions on the subject
since there is a danger that homosexuality may become an accepted
lifestyle choice if leaders let down their guard.
“Obama has raised it now, but we should find ways of dealing with it
in our own settings,” Ndlovu said. “We cannot close ourselves and ignore
it. It will soon explode if we don’t deal with it.”