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Can Tutu and Pope Francis quell gay hate in Africa?

Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis’ gay-friendly remarks sparked a public debate in the West. In Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly in the DRC, discussion has been limited
Pope Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, has indicated he won't 'judge' gay people.
Photo by Edgar Jiménez.

Gay-friendly declarations from the clergy have been all the rage lately. On 26 July 2013, at a press conference for a United Nations campaign to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) human rights, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared he would rather attend hell than a homophobic heaven.

These words were spun into international headlines.

Two days later, attention from the press flared even more when Pope Francis uttered a similar though less committal sentiment: ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?’

He’s a global religious leader, that’s who. And since the moral status of sexual minorities is an inflammatory topic, his comment kick-started a debate from western commentators.

John L Allen, Vatican correspondent for CNN, blogged the Pope’s words represented a shift in tone, not doctrine for the Catholic Church. Graeme Reid from Human Rights Watch told TIME Magazine: ‘The Pope’s comments will have significant resonance in many African countries, including Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda, and also in the Caribbean.’

That's not exactly the case. The press in Sub-Saharan Africa has been relatively quiet on the matter. With the exception of South Africa, few major African media outlets granted the comments a headline and even fewer delved into commentary.

An excuse might be that the continent has bigger fish to fry – wars, protests, and all. Indeed, presidential elections transpired in Mali and Zimbabwe and there was even a terrorist attack in Tunisia. However, a reportage about the lifestyle of footballers was also given top billing this week.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the local press stayed particularly mum on the matter. But the news still trickled in to Kinshasa thanks to access to the international media.

The morning after the Pope’s comment, I listened closely as KTVH, a local radio station, blared a sermon by Pasteur François Mutombo. Without actually naming them, he alluded to either Tutu, the pope or both figures. ‘They say that homosexuals can pray to the same God as you and I. They say that when they do that, He listens,’ he paused dramatically for effect. ‘How can religious leaders endorse that?’

In the same hour, two security guards weighed the comment at their post: ‘The Bible tells us that marriage is between a man and a woman,’ argued one of them. ‘Sure, the Pope can say what he wants, but you have to follow what the Bible says.’

This argument reflects a common perception among African church groups of the morality of Christian denominations in the West. They’re too interpretative, not Biblical enough.

That weekend, after a Sunday church service at Vie Comblée, a popular Evangelical church, I took a number and sat for 20 minutes in a crowd of church members who were waiting to consult the in-demand pastor. When my query came up, Pasteur Sita Luemba was unequivocal: ‘I'd rather go to prison than marry a homosexual couple.’ He backed up his statement by painstakingly flipped through his Bible in search of verses to read aloud: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Romans 1:18-32, etc. I politely stopped him at the third verse.

I also approached Archbishop Henri Insingoma from the Anglican Church of the Congo, and he agreed with the sentiment: ‘Desmond Tutu is someone who’s lived in a multiracial culture and the Anglican church is generally very progressive because it must accommodate both western and African culture.

‘But in the Congo, we are not able to understand this practice [homosexuality]. For church leaders here, Biblical culture resembles our cultural reality. As for homosexuality, it will come after us, but for the moment, we still resist it.’

This homophobia may not be entirely homegrown. In 2012, Political Research Associates, an American human rights think-tank, published Colonizing African Values, a report on the exportation of homophobia from the US Christian right to Africa.

It details the American Neo-Pentecostal practice of fueling anti-gay sentiment in Africa through lobbying and good old-fashioned preaching.

The local clergy, usually at the helm of family life in Sub-Saharan Africa, has also been known to stoke homophobia in communities. A prime example is the ‘gay witch hunt’ of 2006 in Cameroon that started with the vitriol of an archbishop and ended with publishing the names of suspected homosexuals in local newspapers.

The impact of hands-on ‘ministries’ trumps that of iconic world figures. Tutu has spent the entirety of his career at the vanguard of societal change in South Africa and abroad, but he's very much a darling of the West. On the other hand, Pope Francis, is well, the Pope.

As it goes, papal statements are usually sparse, restrained, and ready to be dissected and repurposed by followers and thought-leaders. Combined and in such close succession to each other, the two sound bites are significant – to the editors of the Huffington Post, not Jeune Afrique.

If the discussion has not tapped into the African zeitgeist, it’s because local religious figures, not public personalities with international platforms, tend to dictate thought and tradition here. They achieve this through large church attendance numbers, robust systems of family counseling and intimate community involvement. Roared from a pulpit at a crowded Sunday service, the opinion of a small-time pastor has more clout than the Pope himself.

Valérie Bah lives and works in the DRC and writes on LGBT issues.

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