Why African Christians want Obama to keep quiet about gay rights

Kenya's anti-gay caucus demonstrated on the streets of Nairobi this week.Reuters

It's often said that gay marriage could be the deciding issue for the future of the global Church, and certainly for the Anglican Communion, but the much-invoked African perspective on the issue is rarely heard. President Obama's visit to Kenya later this month has, however, brought this perspective to the fore.

The President is attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at the end of the month, but ahead of his visit there have been several calls from Church leaders and politicians for him not to discuss the subject of gay rights, as he did on his visit to South Africa, Tanzania and Senegal in 2013.

In May, the Evangelical Alliance in Kenya, which represents about 700 pastors, said: "President Barack Obama is welcome to visit Kenya this summer – but please, leave the preaching to us."

At a demonstration this week, senior Kenyan politicians echoed the church leaders' message. Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto said at a church service on Sunday: "Homosexuality is against the plan of God...We have heard that in the US they have allowed gay relations and other dirty things. I want to say as a Christian leader that we will defend our country Kenya, we will stand for our faith and our country."

Chairman of the Evangelical Alliance in Kenya, Bishop Mark Kariuki, told Christian Today: "Our main concern is that President Obama has his roots here in Kenya and...he is the President of the greatest nation in the world, so he's an opinion maker to many. When he comes here and starts speaking about homosexuality, our young people will be drawn in to things that they do not know."

Kariuki, who is a televangelist and leads a megachurch in Nairobi, added that the President should focus on the main purpose of his trip. "It is good for him to come. But when he comes, let him concentrate on the conference he is coming to address, and on commerce, the economy and trade. I think he will be helping more families by talking about those issues than talking about homosexuality."

The global view

The decision by the US Supreme Court in June to legalise gay marriage has raised concern among Kenyan leaders. But the US is far from alone. The Irish electorate voted in favour of gay marriage in May, and it's currently a live topic of debate for Australian politicians. Over the last 15 years same-sex marriage has been legalised in 21 countries, including laws set to come into force in Slovenia this year and Finland in 2017.

But in Africa, homosexual acts remain illegal in many countries, with varying degrees of severity in punishment. While most African countries don't recognise gay marriage, Uganda and Nigeria have specific laws prohibiting it. Those convicted on this charge in Uganda could face life imprisonment, and in Nigeria, up to 14 years in prison – in addition, those who 'aid and abet' a gay marriage can also face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. In Kenya, homosexual acts are currently punishable with up to 14 years in prison. And in Sudan, repeated conviction for homosexual acts carries the death penalty.

Practicing homosexuality also carries the death penalty in a number of Middle Eastern countries including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. And in India, homosexuality was recriminalized in 2013 (having been legalised in 2009), and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Closer to home, it is inevitable that as national laws change to allow same-sex marriage, the churches in these nations are also having to consider their position afresh. Church of England vicars are not permitted to marry same-sex couples in churches, although the Church is currently in a period of 'shared conversations' on human sexuality. Since the Supreme Court's decision, the Episcopal Church in America has allowed its priests to conduct gay weddings – following the decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) last year and the United Church of Christ in 2005.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has often spoken of the difficulty in trying to straddle the divide in the Anglican Communion over same-sex marriage. He responded to the decision of the Episcopal Church by expressing "deep concern" about the "stress" for the Communion. He said the Church's decision "will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships."

The Communion includes Anglican and Episcopal Churches around the world, and has 85 million members across 165 countries. Of the world's 2 billion Christians, about a quarter (542 million) live in Africa.

Africa's take on the West

So while parts of the Western Church may be changing their view – and admittedly, many are not – the Church in Africa sees things very differently. We know that many African Church leaders oppose gay marriage, but what is their assessment of where the Western Church has gone wrong?

Bishop Kariuki says the Episcopal Church's decision "just shows how far the Western Church has gone from God".

"Secularism and materialism has gotten so much into the Western Church – there's always an alternative," he adds. "So God is one of their alternatives; when you need God, you go to him, when you don't need God, you don't even need to think about Him... I think that's the main problem, and the fear of God is no longer there."

Bishop Simon Peter Emiau, chairman of the Evangelical Fellowship of Uganda, shares this view. He says churches that support gay marriage demonstrate "a deviation from the truth" and adds that any interpretation of the Bible which suggests that God is happy with gay marriage is a "forced" reading.

Emiau, who also leads the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Uganda, says there has been a "Loss of truth" because many churches are no longer biblically based. "Dependence on God is not there, wealth is there enough to supply all that you need...I think [it's] because of that deviation, deterioration, moving away from the essence of creation, the presence of God... I don't know what they will worship in the end."

Though we might hesitate in pronouncing this as a view shared by the whole continent, Bishop Emiau says his understanding of the "creation view", that marriage is between a man and a woman, is shared by all African Church leaders. He says this is a logical view on the basis of procreation: "I have never seen an island where a man and a man have multiplied."

His emphasis on procreation is interesting, particularly as he highlights the importance of generations and continuing the family line within African culture. "If my son marries another man, my family has come to an end," he says, adding that he finds it illogical for homosexuals to seek to adopt children.

Western interference

The message from Kenyan leaders has essentially been 'you've messed up your own societies, please leave ours alone'. Archbishop of Nairobi Cardinal John Njue has said: "Those people who have already ruined their society... let them not become our teachers to tell us where to go."

The Church in Uganda supported the Anti-Homosexuality Act, signed into Ugandan law in February 2014, which made some homosexual acts punishable by life imprisonment. The Act, which attracted international condemnation – especially as it originally proposed the death penalty – was annulled by the Supreme Court in August 2014, although there are reports that the goverment will try to reintroduce the bill. When the law was first introduced in 2009 Britain and a number of European countries threatened to withdraw aid, and when the Act passed last year, Obama said it would affect relations between Uganda and the US.

Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa (C) leads anti-gay supporters as they celebrate after President Yoweri Museveni signed a law imposing harsh penalties for homosexuality in February 2014.

Bishop Emiau says he finds it unreasonable that laws that were deemed acceptable under colonial control in Uganda are now been criticised by the former colonists. "It has been in our constitution since the colonial era...When it was there with the colonists nobody blamed it. When now it is a black government they start to blame it. Why, why is the question?"

For President Obama the answer would probably be that it's about human rights, and so despite the warnings from Kenya it seems unlikely that he will keep silent. In Senegal in 2013 he said: "My basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to the law, people should be treated equally."

And this week White House press secretary Josh Earnest said: "I'm confident the President will not hesitate to make clear that the protection of basic universal human rights in Kenya is also a priority and consistent with the values that we hold dear here in the United States of America."

But Emaiu finds Obama's views on human rights heavy-handed. "Wanting to force what you believe on somebody... and you speak of liberty and freedom. That liberty and freedom is one-sided... They come and twist your hand using economic angle – that's not freedom."

In Kenya on Monday anti-gay activists, including politicians and Christian leaders, demonstrated on the streets of Nairobi to protest the decision of the Kenyan High Court in April to allow gay activists to register themselves as an NGO – a right that had been repeatedly blocked by parliament.

Kariuki explains: "One of our concerns is the money that is coming from the West ...The pro-gay movement in the West funds the pro-gay movement here in Africa. That's why they want to register an NGO, so that through that NGO they can gain funds from the West and then they can propagate their beliefs."

He says that the vast majority of Kenyans (as much as 95 per cent) agree with the Church's stance – including all other faith groups.

Unintended consequences

Western political leaders may try to influence policy in African nations, but it would seem that their decisions at home have already had unintended consequences for the Church in Africa. Last year Archbishop Welby warned that Christians in Africa could suffer grave consequences if the Church in the West celebrated gay marriages.

"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened far, far away in America," Welby said on LBC Radio. "What we say here is heard around the world."

He had recently visited a mass grave in Nigeria, where 369 Christians were killed because their attackers said: "If we leave a Christian community in this area we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians."

Welby suggested that if Church of England celebrated gay marriages "the impact of that on Christians in countries far from here, like South Sudan, like Nigeria and other places, would be absolutely catastrophic, and we have to love them as much as we love the people who are here."

Kariuki agrees with Welby's assessment. "It would definitely increase the chances of greater persecution for the Church," he says, "It would maybe start in Sudan or Nigeria, but it would spread into other nations as well.

"Because there are those who look for the slightest opportunity to fight the Church... [and] the Church will have opened a door, which they themselves don't advocate for. It will be seen as if this is what is going happen to the Church in Africa."

But despite the threat of persecution, Bishop Emiau is adamant that "the Church must stand, the Church must not fear persecution" – meaning both the Church in the West and the Church in Africa.

Kariuki says that moral decline around the world "is of great concern" but Christians should "understand the times in which we are living – these are the end times that were prophesied about – when evil would increase.

"But the fact that it was prophesied about doesn't mean that you keep quiet. That is when we should be more aggressive and talk against the evil that is going on in the world, so that those who hear about the Word will be helped."