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RGOD2: “You must be barricades against exclusion”

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Every seven years, the World Council of Churches meets to discuss issues affecting its 600 million member network. This year’s meeting in Basan in the Republic of Korea saw a brave attempt by some South African religious leaders to raise the contentious issue of LGBT inclusion in churches and the relationship between criminalization in 76 countries and its impact on major health issues like HIV.

The Rev. Judith Kotzé of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries led a workshop for 150 delegates. She was also one of our delegates to the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. last year where she helped train 26 LGBT leaders and allies to work more closely with their faith communities, sponsored by the St. Paul’s Foundation, USAID, Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute.

The Korean conference ended with a powerful prayer for inclusion read by another South African, the Rev. Michael Lapsley, who asked for forgiveness from the LGBT community for the ways in which churches have historically excluded us. Michael lost both his hands in the explosion of a parcel bomb that was sent to his home during the turbulent years of apartheid and he now spends his ministry encouraging communities to reconcile and seek alternative ways to communicate across the barricades of fear and exclusion.

An apology to the LGBT community

“Today I want to say as a Christian, as a priest, to all the LGBTI community, I am deeply sorry for our part as religious people, in the pain you have experienced across the ages. I have a dream that in my lifetime, I will hear all the leaders of all our great faith traditions making the same apology.”

Another powerful speech was given by Michel Sidibé, whose office is responsible for coordinating of the UN’s global response to HIV. He has long been an advocate for reconciling the differences between the faith community and the LGBT community so lives can be saved and countries can success in reaching their common goals of zero new infections, zero discrimination, zero stigma and zero deaths.

“Thanks to your training and dedication, over 30,000 priests have been equipped to lead these dialogues in their communities and act as agents of change. 160 theological colleges are using your books and resources. You have made tremendous strides to increase critical awareness about HIV, expanding the theological-ethical and practical competencies of churches and develop practical tools for faith communities well beyond Africa. This has been key to moving towards dignity for people living with and vulnerable to HIV in more a more just and caring global society.

“Over the years you have generated an essential dialogue in faith communities about HIV, sexuality, stigma, discrimination and rights. Now it is time to push boundaries on issues of sexuality, stigma & rights. You must be barricades against exclusion. The proportion of countries with antidiscrimination laws and regulations that protect people living with HIV rose from 56% to 71% in the last five years. Countries are increasing domestic investments in HIV-related legal services, so people living with and affected by HIV can seek justice from their own governments and communities. And faith communities remain one of our greatest allies in providing HIV prevention, treatment care and support for people and communities in need. Today we need to be inclusive if we want to achieve justice and peace. Faith communities are the barricades against societal tendencies of exclusion.”

Sidibé noted the higher rates of HIV infection among “key populations” – IV drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men (MSM). Whereas strides have been made to reduce mother to child transmission of HIV and to slow down the rates of infection among heterosexual people, the real global epidemic is still unaddressed in these key populations. Some of us would also argue that religious support to keep former anti-LGBT colonial laws enforceable or resistance to train religious health care providers to serve these key populations remains THE most insurmountable barrier to reaching UNAIDS goals by 2015.

There is ample documentation of our own efforts in the U.S. through PEPFAR and USAID to support the status quo rather than respond favorably to evidence-based intervention programs. African Faith-based programs were particularly favored by the Bush Administration when the President set up PEPFAR and it has been very difficult to change the well-intentioned original DNA of these life saving programs (basically gifts of the American people paid through our taxes) to include populations that the faith community continue to demonize and exclude. Perhaps Lapsley’s and Sidibé’s messages are getting through to some faith leaders? Will the barricades be against exclusion or remain forcibly against us? It is still too soon to tell.

“It will be much harder to reach those still in need -the ones whose lives are hanging in the balance because they remain hidden, or marginalized, or criminalized. It will require a mass mobilization of communities to demand HIV treatment, to address the stigma, discrimination, gender inequity and punitive laws that are so often the barriers to people coming forward for testing, or coming back to receive their results, or even access HIV treatment where it is now available. This requires an even greater commitment to equity, inclusiveness, human dignity and faith. This is why, more than ever before, we must strengthen the alliances between organizations of people living with and affected by HIV and religious communities and leaders. This is essential to ending stigma and discrimination and improving access to health and dignity for all.”

World AIDS Day – in difficult contexts

Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day and as it falls on a Sunday. It is going to be interesting to see how many faith communities actually use this opportunity to publically repent of our participation in exclusion, reach out or spend the time and money on training their staff to work with “key populations.”

There are some small signs of hope and good news coming out of very difficult contexts where the faith community and these key populations are beginning the difficult road towards the kind of reconciliation our African leaders mentioned here are appealing for. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Uganda has asked out good friend Maxensia Nakibukka to organize the official Catholic Church’s liturgy where 3,000 people will gather Dec. 1 to commemorate World AIDS Day, and he will meet with and dialogue with members of the Good Samaritan Consortium, led by MARPS Network (Most at Risk Populations). The Consortium has been meeting since March and has 14 organizations willing to train and provide services to and with these key populations.

In a week where we had the shocking news of the arrest of Sam Ganafa, the chairman of Sexual Minorities Uganda, who had to suffer the indignity of a forced HIV test because his accuser claimed he infected him with HIV, the symbolic reaching out and embrace of the Archbishop and the network of Catholic health services is quite remarkable. The police have also been making arbitrary arrests of other LGBT people and there are accusations of torture and detention without following the constitutional processes. The LGBT and ally community in Uganda is living under constant threat of state sponsored violence and it is time faith leaders simply said: “Enough.”

In Zambia, one of the leading HIV experts working to help the government get to UNAIDS zeroes was himself arrested and has a long protracted legal battle with the Zambian government. This has basically immobilized the LGBT community in its HIV response. With this kind of persecution, Zambia will simply never get to zero. The Vice President of Zambia admitted the arrest was simply to satisfy the political leverage of the local evangelical community.

In Cameroon, the executive director of CAMFAIDS, Eric Lembembe was brutally murdered and the government is vacillating between saying he brought his murder upon himself simply for being LGBT or he died of “natural causes.” The guy was tortured and killed! Thanks to donor support, we were able to ensure two Cameroonian leaders were present at the African Commission on People’s and Human Rights last month in Banjul. There were multiple criticisms of the government’s and church’s response to LGBT and HIV issues at this important venue. In particular, the Cameroonian government’s imprisonment of LGBT people (CAMFAIDS recently discovered 10 new undocumented prisoners) and a recent story by Colin Stewart shows how the criminal justice system in Cameroon uncovered a case where someone has been sent to prison for nine years without any witnesses to prove the offense was actually committed. Cameroon will never get to zero if the government continues to treat LGBT people like animals.

Within this horrific context, CAMFAIDS will hold two important public HIV educational seminars on Dec. 1 and Dec. 10 (Human Rights Day) to continue to reach out in reconciliation and goodwill to all the people of Cameroon. A year ago, the former Catholic Archbishop used his Christmas sermon as the place to condemn the gay community for “Crimes Against Humanity.” Today, he has been replaced by someone who is reaching out and wants to talk to LGBT leaders there. We need to pray for these moments of grace in a storm of fear and violence. These are courageous people who are living and working for small signs of hope and progress in some of the most difficult places in the world to commemorate World AIDS Day. Yet, this is what Sidibé and Lapsley are talking about. We need courageous religious leaders to reach out also.

Next week’s column will be dedicated to the Ugandan commemoration with a commentary by Maxensia Nakibuuka and a St. Paul’s Foundation nurse volunteer who is learning about how this indomitable Ugandan community is making progress.

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RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.

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