Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Religious Right Around the Globe: Malawi Churches Defend Anti-Gay Laws

In Malawi, optimism over a purported moratorium on the country's anti-gay laws has been replaced with governmental backpedalling. And, sadly, a homophobic religious group is partially to blame.

According to the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), Sections 137A, 153 and 156 of Malawi's penal code criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activities. Recently, Malawi Attorney General Ralph Kasambara announced a moratorium on the country's anti-gay laws, according to the Nyasa Times. At a November 1st debate in Liongwe organized by the Centre for Human Rights Rehabilitation and the Centre for Development of People, Kasambara reportedly told attendees that a moratorium had been placed on the anti-gay laws, pending a Parliamentary decision. Police would not arrest or prosecute anyone under the anti-gay laws, he assured listeners, adding that President Joyce Banda encouraged public debate on LGBTQ rights.

The move was warmly praised by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but met with cautious optimism by Malawian human rights activists. For instance, Malawian journalist Anthony Kasunda claimed that the Malawi government was trying to "buy favors from donors", insisting that the anti-gay statutes would threaten LGBTQ persons until they were repealed, according to the IGLHRC. Undule Mwakasungula of the Centre For Human Rights and Rehabilitation encouraged engagement with Malawi's parliamentarians, while Gift Trapence of the Centre for the Development of People warned that the suspended laws were still on the books.

However, the attorney general has since backtracked. According to the Daily Times, Kasambara denied that he issued a statement suspending the country's anti-gay law. Kasambara said that Parliament had no discussed same-sex marriage measures or suspension of any laws at that point in time.

Why the sudden backtracking? Conservative religious forces in Malawi may be to blame. Reuters reports that according to sources in Malawi's justice ministry, the Malawi Counsel of Churches and put pressure on leaders. The Guardian reports that the Law Society of Malawi also condemned the moratorium as unconstitutional.

The Malawi Council of Churches, an umbrella group for 24 of the country's Protestant churches, supports criminalization of same-sex sexual activity. "Our stance has always been that this practice should be criminalized because it runs contrary to our Christian values," said Rev. Osborne Joda-Mbewe, secretary general of the Malawi Council of Churches, according to Reuters. Another religious leader under the council, Canaan Phiri, told the AFP that “Malawi follows the rule of law because having a sexual orientation is not a sin, but practicing is sin,” acording to IOL News.

The Malawi Council of Churches is affiliated with the World Council of Churches, an ecumenical global fellowship. These developments should trouble the World Council of Churches, whose website supports Christian service through the pursuit of justice. Likewise, they should trouble members of the different denominations whose sister churches belong to the Malawi Council of Churches. I hope that Christians within and without Malawi condemn the Malawi Council of Church's statements on criminalization and support equality for Malawi's LGBTQ citizens.

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