Christians Stand Firm amid Uganda 'State Homophobia' Accusations

Aug 26, 2007 04:27 AM EDT

Christians are standing firm in Africa, denouncing homosexuality as against biblical scripture, even as an international human rights group accuses Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's government of promoting "state homophobia."

.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) is backing pro-gay rights groups in urging for the country's laws against sodomy to be brought to an end. The international NGO sent a letter to Museveni calling for legislative reform and an end to what the group described as a "long record of harassing" lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender people.

"For years, President Museveni's government has drummed up homophobia and denied the basic rights of LGBT people for his own political advantage," said HRW researcher Juliana Cano Nieto in a statement sent to media on Friday

The Ugandan Government immediately rejected HRW's accusation of “state homophobia,” and said it has never persecuted gays.

"Our constitution criminalizes homosexuality... Even so, the government has never gone out to look for homosexuals," ruling party spokesman Ofwono Opondo told Reuters by telephone from Kampala.

HRW's attack has added to a fierce social debate in the east African nation, where gays and lesbians have been increasingly vocal in demanding rights as Christian groups have taken to the streets to denounce homosexuality as a sin. The issue came to the fore in Uganda this month when an advocacy group, the Sexual Minorities Groups in Uganda, took the unprecedented step of holding a news conference to demand recognition, though most hid their faces behind masks.

The demand prompted demonstrations from the Inter-faith Coalition of church groups in Kampala. insisting there be no compromises given to gay rights. They fear any relaxation in the law would lead to a wider culture of homosexuality in the country – something they say goes in direct contradiction to God’s Word.

Uganda's conservative parliamentarians, however, are unlikely to change its laws, Opondo stated.

HRW accused Museveni's government, in power since 1986, of harassing gay organizations, promoting discrimination through state media and raiding homes of activists.

The group said homosexual acts were criminalized in Uganda under a sodomy law inherited from British colonialism, "although punishments were... strengthened in 1990".

"State homophobia and well-funded fanaticism are undermining Uganda's efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS," Nieto said.

Uganda, with a population of 31 million, has some 500,000 gays and lesbians, activists say.

However, Christianity and traditional beliefs remain strong across the continent, and any discussions on liberalizing views towards homosexuality have been quickly and widely condemned by Church groups.