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Associated Press/Photo by Stephen Wandera

Homegrown controversy

Uganda | Ugandan church leaders take responsibility for anti-homosexuality law

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

For Americans looking for a simplistic picture of Uganda's controversial anti-homosexuality bill, Ugandan pastor Peterson Sozi complicates the landscape.

Sozi, a well-respected church leader in Uganda, founded First Presbyterian Church in Uganda three decades ago and escaped the brutal persecution inflicted against Christians by dictator Idi Amin. Sozi is on the African advisory board for World Reformed Fellowship, a U.S.-based organization that includes prominent, Reformed theologians and denominations.

These days Sozi has a new project: serving on an anti-corruption task force dedicated to passing the anti-homosexuality legislation that criminalizes-and could impose the death penalty-on same-sex behavior.

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The pastor is quick to underscore that the task force is urging officials to drop the death penalty from the bill. But he still supports an amended version, including stiff prison sentences, saying the legislation is necessary to prevent the spread of a gay agenda in Uganda.

The bill has garnered intense international criticism since Ugandan parliament member David Bahati introduced it in November. World leaders like President Barack Obama and church leaders like mega-church pastor Rick Warren have condemned it.

Others have laid blame for the bill outside Africa, focusing on three American evangelicals who conducted an anti-gay conference in Uganda last March. But Sozi and Martin Ssempa-another pastor and one of the most vocal supporters of the legislation-reject that, calling the movement "homegrown."

The support of a litany of other evangelical churches in Uganda-and a massive march scheduled Feb. 17-suggest the issue isn't going away, with or without the West.

Ssempa, a Pentecostal pastor and an early leader in the Ugandan abstinence movement that helped curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, scoffs at the idea that U.S. evangelicals are behind the bill's progress: "It is offensive for anyone to think that we need a white man from America to tell an African in Uganda that sodomy is evil."

Sozi agrees: "It's something that we've been looking at for a long time, and it's not fair to say that a few Americans who came recently agitated us to start forging a bill."

Both men point to Ugandan history: One account says that in 1886, Ugandan King Mwanga ordered two dozen male pages in his court to have sex with him. When the Christians refused, the king ordered their deaths by burning. Each June, a national holiday in Uganda commemorates the Christians' martyrdom, underscoring the nation's ingrained resistance to homosexuality.

More recently, Ugandan church leaders, especially Anglicans, have endured bitter conflict in opposing the ordination of homosexual clergy in the U.S. Episcopal Church. Two Anglican archbishops in England-including Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams-have condemned the bill. The Church of Uganda suggested amending the bill to protect the confidentiality of pastors counseling homosexuals, but church leaders did not recommend specific changes to the bill's proposed prison sentences.)

The original bill calls for the death penalty in cases of "aggravated homosexuality"-including if the offender has HIV or commits homosexual acts with a minor. The legislation calls for life imprisonment if a person commits a homosexual act, or if he or she "touches another person with the intention of committing homosexuality."

Officials say a final version of the bill may drop the death penalty and lessen prison sentences, amendments Ssempa and Sozi say they support. But when asked if a still-lengthy prison sentence is too harsh for homosexual acts, Sozi says homosexuality is "a corruption of the highest degree. . . . It is an offense we should not think of as light."

That leaves many Christians grappling with the implications of the bill for ministry and aid to people who might need it most. Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, after criticism for his association with Ssempa in the past, in December called the bill "unjust, extreme, and un-Christian."

Warren worries that a provision requiring people to report homosexuals to authorities could squelch pastoral ministry to gay people who might otherwise seek counsel. The bill could also affect foreign aid levels to a country that has made real progress in its battle with AIDS.

Other Christian groups, including Exodus International and World Vision, also denounced it. World Vision leaders said they worry the legislation could thwart their efforts to help patients with HIV/AIDS.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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