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Some U.S. Christians Push Back Against Ugandan Anti-Gay Bill

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Leaders of what might be called the "Christian left" in the United States have denounced a controversial bill in Uganda that would levy severe criminal penalties against homosexuals, including the death penalty -- and they have called on conservaive Christians in America with close ties to the anti-gay forces in East Africa to use their influence to defeat the legislation.

The Ugandan legislation, the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009, has become increasingly controversial as it has come closer to becoming a reality.

Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, but the proposed act would mandate a seven-year prison term for anyone who has gay sex or "attempts to commit the offense" of homosexuality, and anyone who fails to report homosexuals within 24 hours of discovering their behavior can be punished by up to three years in prison. Those who commit what is called "aggravated homosexuality" -- defined as having gay sex with disabled people or anyone under 18, or when the accused is HIV-positive -- could be executed.

As we reported earlier, emerging revelations of the influence of conservative American Christian leaders on Ugandan church groups pushing the bill have generated wide interest in the story in the West -- hence the statement, organized by Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and signed by dozens of mainly evangelical and Catholic leaders.
"As Americans, some may wonder why we are raising our voices to oppose a measure proposed in a nation so far away from home," the signers declare in the statement, released Monday. "We do so to bear witness to our Christian values, and to express our condemnation of an injustice in which groups and leaders within the American Christian community are being implicated. We appeal to all Christian leaders in our own country to speak out against this unjust legislation."

About 85 percent of Uganda's 31 million people are Christian, and about 12 percent are Muslim. Roman Catholics account for about 42 percent of the population, followed by the Anglican Church at 36 percent, with a growing presence of evangelicals and Pentecostals -- who have their relied on North American counterparts for aid and inspiration -- making up the balance.

One of the most prominent Christian leaders with ties to the anti-gay Christian lobby in Uganda is Rick Warren, the best-selling author and mega-church pastor. Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," has longstanding connections in Uganda, which he has declared a "Purpose-Driven Nation." Warren's point man in Uganda was Martin Ssempa, a pastor who is a strong backer of the Anti-Homosexuality bill. Ssempa has appeared at Warren's Saddleback Church, although Warren distanced himself from Ssempa's views in October and said he had cut ties with him in 2007. But Warren remains close to his dissertation adviser from seminary, C. Peter Wagner, who is reportedly a force behind the criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda.

Warren has told Ugandan media that he opposes homosexuality, saying it is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right, adding, "We shall not tolerate this aspect at all." In a statement to Newsweek this month, Warren also declined to condemn the pending legislation:
"The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator," Warren said. "However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."
Officials from Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good say other leaders are welcome to sign on to the statement, but few are expecting Warren to join the effort.

Signatories of the new appeal include Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners; Bryan N. Massingale, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America; Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action; the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; evangelical activist Brian McLaren; Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society; Thomas P. Melady, former U.S. ambassador to Uganda and the Vatican; the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, incoming president of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA; Douglas W. Kmiec, President Obama's new ambassador to Malta and a prominent Catholic legal scholar; David P. Gushee, a leading Christian ethicist at Mercer University; and Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest University Divinity School's Center for Religion and Public Affairs and an adviser to Obama on faith-based issues.

On Dec. 4, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church -- the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion -- released a statement voicing opposition to the Ugandan bill and lamenting the work of American activists in pushing the anti-gay act.

There are indications the pressure and controversy are having a mitigating effect. Reuters is reporting that parliamentary leaders, with lobbying from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, are likely to change the capital punishment provision to life imprisonment, and make other modifications to avoid rejecting international accords. International donors supply about a third of Uganda's budget, so the country cannot afford to alienate the world community -- yet. The discovery of oil reserves in Uganda may lead to self-sufficiency and a willingness by the country's leaders to go their own way.

Already some Western leaders, such as Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the global Anglican Communion, are reportedly leery of speaking out for fear of sparking a backlash among Ugandans who are sensitive to charges of Western interference.

But reports from Uganda indicate that the harassment of homosexuals has already ramped up, and those who have not been targeted fear persecution.

"It's catastrophic," Frank Mugisha, chairman of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a local activist group, told Reuters. "People are being arrested, intimidated already. What's going to happen if it's passed?"
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