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Nigerian Churches Tell West to Practice What It Preached on Gays

Some African Christian leaders say they are so worried about the corrosive effect of Western values that they have stopped sending priests to the United States and Europe for training. Akinola and others, meanwhile, have called on Nigerians to go to Western nations as missionaries of the traditional faith, reversing the steps of 19th-century missionaries.

"All of us in Africa think the same way. We do not understand all these new doctrines," said Sunday Mbang, head of the Methodist Church in Nigeria. "The Western new mentality . . . has driven them crazy. We will have to send evangelists to change their craziness."

Homosexuality is very carefully hidden in Nigeria. One of the few openly gay activists, Oludare Odumuye of Abuja, said that the heavy stigma and criminal penalties for homosexual intercourse have pushed Nigeria's gay communities almost entirely underground, especially in Muslim areas in the north, where Islamic law, known as sharia , calls for death by stoning for gay acts.

Odumuye said that although gay people socialize in private homes and nightclubs, the nation of 130 million has not a single gay bar. One such bar on a beach in Lagos, the nation's commercial capital, was burned down three years ago -- intentionally, he suspects. Other gatherings are raided by police, he said, and anti-homosexual comments by Akinola and other religious leaders force gays to lead secretive lives.

"The community is in the closet," Odumuye said. He added that before the influx of Christian missionaries, gay men and lesbians were more accepted in Africa, and that Akinola and others who portray homosexuality as an import from the West are misleading people.

"For them to say it's un-African. . . . He's not saying the truth," Odumuye said.

Homosexual activity is a crime throughout most of the continent, and childbearing is regarded as the essential function of marriage. The wave of liberalization that changed Western church thinking in the 1960s and '70s bypassed Africa, where religious values have remained deeply conservative -- and where church membership has soared.

There are now more Anglicans in Nigeria than anywhere but England, and the Catholic Church, with 150 million faithful in Africa, is growing faster there than on any other continent. As a result, African churches have been increasingly assertive in promoting a literal interpretation of the Bible. Among these Christians, Akinola is a hero.

Many of the Nigerians who warn most fervently against decaying Western values have traveled extensively in the United States and Europe, including two of the women at the opening of the National Ecumenical Center. Okusami, a tall, regal village leader, spent six years in Washington and studied at American University. Ade-Cole lived for a time in New York City.

Both women said they were eager to see Akinola -- who himself spent two years in Virginia as a graduate student -- fighting for traditional views on homosexuality.

"I'm happy that he's shouted. Someone has to shout," Ade-Cole said. "Otherwise America will drag the whole world into hell."

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