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Gays in Africa face growing persecution, human rights activists say

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Sheila Hope Mugisha is a lesbian who was named in an article urging readers to hang homosexuals in Rolling Stone, a Ugandan tabloid which has no affiliation with the American music magazine. Mugisha says neighbors attacked her with stones after the article was published.

Late last month, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga declared that gay people discovered having sex should be arrested. He later backtracked after his comments drew widespread anger from human rights groups.

A survey by the Forum on Religion and Public Life released in April found that 79 percent of Ugandans consider "homosexual behavior morally wrong," with even higher percentages in several other African countries.

One exception is South Africa, whose constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and is among a few countries in the world that have legalized same-sex marriages. Still, even there, negative attitudes toward gays persist in many rural areas and townships.

Mbaru's organization has seen a 10 percent increase in reported attacks against gays in Africa in the past year, she said. According to Sexual Minorities Uganda, a gay rights group, more than 20 gay people have been attacked over the past year here. An additional 17 have been arrested and are in prison.

In recent years, conservative American evangelical churches have had a profound influence on society in Uganda and other African nations. They send missions and help fund local churches that share their brand of Christianity. Sermons and seminars by American evangelist preachers are staples on local television and radio networks across the continent.

Some activists say the attacks in Uganda intensified last year after three American evangelical preachers visited the country. In seminars attended by thousands and broadcasted over radio, the preachers discussed how to "cure" homosexuality and accused gays of sodomizing boys and destroying African culture. A month later, a Ugandan lawmaker introduced the anti-homosexuality bill.

"The religious fundamentalists want to rule everyone. They want everyone to follow their religious agenda," said Pepe Julien Onziema, a gay rights activist here.

Uganda's penal code criminalizes homosexuality as "acts against the laws of human nature." But under the draft bill, even parents and teachers who fail to report an offender would face three years in jail; those who "promote" homosexuality would face a five- to seven-year jail sentence.

The bill has provoked an international uproar, particularly from the United States and European governments that provide the bulk of Uganda's foreign aid. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has quietly urged lawmakers not to act on the bill.

Giles Muhame, a 22-year-old journalist in Uganda's capital, said the bill was shelved because of donor pressure. "Most Ugandans are totally against homosexuality," he said.

With a few colleagues, Muhame launched Rolling Stone, a conservative tabloid that is unaffiliated with the U.S. magazine.

"The Bible condemns homosexuality," Muhame said. "You know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? It is like murder. It is like terrorism."


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