By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 24, 2005
ABUJA, Nigeria -- Little more than a century ago, legions of Christian missionaries arrived here from Europe with an imposing agenda for changing traditional African practices. Worshiping animistic gods, they told people, was sinful. So was keeping carved idols at home. And in a land where polygamy was common, the missionaries taught that marriage was a sacred union between one man and one woman, period.
Today, many devout Christian Nigerians adhere firmly to the view that homosexuality is ungodly, and they have been rankled by its growing acceptance among church leaders in the United States and Europe. As the descendants of Nigerians who abandoned their traditional values under the influence of Western preaching, some Christians here say they feel betrayed and offended that the spiritual descendants of those missionaries are now trying to change the rules.
"Homosexuality is against the book," said Dayo Okusami, 58, as she picked up a Bible at this month's opening of the National Ecumenical Center, a multi-denominational cathedral in this capital city. "Here we still follow the book. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality. That's it. God doesn't change. He's not human."
In a nearby pew, Julie Ade-Cole, 60, was even more adamant.
"If America does not stop going in the direction of Sodom and Gomorrah, I can see God's wrath coming heavily down," said the retired government worker, who views the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina as divine punishment. "The Lord has favored them so much, they have started taking God for granted. They have become arrogant."
Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, the outspoken leader of Nigeria's 17.5 million Anglicans, spearheaded the recent move by the Nigerian church to break off relations with the U.S. Episcopalian Church and the Canadian Anglican church as a protest against moves by those bodies to accept homosexuality, such as the 2003 consecration in the United States of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson.
Akinola, who is also the nominal leader of Africa's 40 million Anglicans, has said that the Church of England, known as the "mother church" of Anglicans worldwide, will be the next to find itself cut off from Nigeria's booming Anglican community if it does not keep a strict line against homosexuality.
In a recent interview in his office here, the archbishop complained that the missionaries of the past "hardly saw anything valid in our culture, in our way of life," yet the same Western churches are now making exceptions to the rules they once preached.
"Brother, there's some need for some consistency here," Akinola said with a smile. He was dressed in a purple robe, and a silver cross dangled from his neck.
As gay people have moved into the mainstream in Western countries, with TV shows and Hollywood movies that depict them sympathetically shown around the world, many African Christians see themselves as custodians of a faith they believe has lost its way in the West.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian in a country split between a largely Muslim north and a Christian and animistic south, told a conference of African Anglican bishops last year that homosexuality was "unbiblical, unnatural and definitely un-African."
"Surely the good Lord who created us male and female knew exactly what he was doing," he said, according to the Financial Times newspaper of London. "Any other form of sexual relationship is a perversion of the divine order, and sin."
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."