In the wake of a recent online campaign, millions of Americans now know the name of Ugandan Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army is responsible for countless atrocities. But in the shadows of these developments, another campaign that would undermine fundamental human rights in Uganda has been ramping up– one that would establish legislation to criminalize homosexuality. As a Catholic who served as U.S. ambassador to Uganda and an evangelical Christian who has traveled throughout Africa, we believe it’s time for more U.S. faith leaders to speak out against systematic efforts to demonize gay Ugandans before it’s too late.
A 2009 bill introduced in the Ugandan parliament would have enforced lifetime prison sentences and in some cases the death penalty for homosexual acts, as well as punish citizens for not reporting their gay and lesbian neighbors to the authorities. The radical proposal stalled after an international outcry, but this inhumane legislation has been reintroduced. Some efforts have recently been made to strip the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of its most extreme provisions, but any effort to persecute people for their sexual orientation or gender identity offends intrinsic human dignity and violates Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
While there are different theological views about the morality of homosexuality and divided opinions on same-sex marriage, the criminalization of homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of our faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “every sign of unjust discrimination” against gays should be avoided. Evangelicals read in Genesis that the breath of the divine gives life to human beings. We are all made in God’s image. The entire Judeo-Christian worldview is built on this unshakable foundation. Any actions that defile the sacred architecture of human dignity must be opposed.
Ugandan religious leaders like Bishop Christopher Senyonjo have already been excommunicated from their traditions for voicing their opposition to the persecution of gays and lesbians, but the proposed bill, according to activists would make his Christian social witness a criminal act. Even the revised version of the legislation would still criminalize speech about gays and lesbians the authorities might deem too positive—setting an incredibly terrifying precedent for the persecution of any minority group.
U.S religious leaders perform vital humanitarian work in Uganda by addressing the ravages of severe poverty, AIDS and other societal challenges. However, some Christians from our country have also preached a vile gospel of hate in a nation where hostility to homosexuals already runs deep. A 2010 New York Times investigation documented how thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, attended a series of talks led by U.S. Christian evangelists who denounced the evils of homosexuality and stirred up irrational fear that gay people would sodomize their children.
Brave Ugandans who speak out have been persecuted. Earlier this year, Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s Minister for Ethics and Integrity, personally broke up a leadership training workshop for gay activists, saying “we do not accept homosexuality in Uganda.”
Uganda is a proud, vibrant country that faces stark challenges and great opportunities. U.S. faith leaders who have come to know the indomitable spirit of her people now face an urgent question. Can we remain silent when human beings made in God’s image are persecuted? “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us. Let us heed that moral wisdom today.
Thomas Patrick Melady is senior diplomat in residence, The Institute of World Politics, former U.S. Ambassador to Burundi, Uganda and the Holy See and President Emeritus of Sacred Heart University.
(Rev.) Richard Cizik is president, New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.