Ugandan gays hope Pope will speak out on their behalf

A Ugandan man is seen during the third Annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride celebrations in Entebbe, Uganda, on Aug.  9, 2014.

A Ugandan man is seen during the third Annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride celebrations in Entebbe, Uganda, on Aug. 9, 2014. Rebecca Vassie, AP

KAMPALA, Uganda — LGBT rights activists are hoping Pope Francis will preach tolerance toward gays, and even go so far as to condemn violent attacks against gays during his upcoming visit to Uganda. Church leaders, however, are praying he’ll avoid the issue altogether.

The divergent expectations underscore the acrimonious state of the gay rights debate on a continent where homosexuality remains taboo and homosexuals are greatly despised. In Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal and where attacks against gays have forced many to seek refuge abroad or lead secret lives at home, gay leaders nevertheless hope Francis will weigh in with a firm message of tolerance.

“I see this particular pope as more progressive but I wouldn’t call him an ally like (President) Obama,” said Frank Mugisha, a prominent gay leader. “I would like to see his position very clearly because what he said came as a by-the-way when he said he can’t judge.”

Francis famously said “Who am I to judge?” in referring to a purportedly gay priest. He has called for a church that is more tolerant and welcoming for those on the margins, including gays.

But he has also denounced what he calls the “ideological colonization” of the developing world, a reference to the way wealthy countries and non-governmental organizations condition development aid on Western ideas about contraception and human rights.

In Africa, that can boil down to the loss of international funding for school or health programs unless they promote condom use. Some European countries such as Sweden and Norway cut finding to Uganda’s government when it passed an anti-gay bill, which had widespread support in Uganda even as the international community condemned it as draconian.

The bill was signed into law last year before a court nullified it on a technicality; an earlier version had prescribed the death penalty for some homosexual acts. Homosexuality is still criminalized under a colonial-era law banning sex acts against the order of nature.

Stronger anti-gay legislation was supported by local church leaders who said it was necessary to protect poor African children from Western homosexuals who lure them with money.

At a recent Vatican meeting on family issues, African cardinals were at the forefront in blocking the church’s overtures to gays and in insisting that the Catholic Church as a whole denounce this “ideological colonization,” saying wealthy countries have no right to impose their ideas on poor countries with different cultural views.

“I doubt that Pope Francis will talk about homosexuals,” said Archbishop John Baptist Odama, who heads the local conference of Catholic bishops. “There is a clear teaching of the church on homosexuality. Because the aim of it is not to promote life but to act against it, those with that tendency are called to abstinence.”

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