As Malawi debates whether to repeal its laws which criminalize homosexuality, the nation’s Catholic bishops are lobbying heavily for the keeping such laws on the books.
Most recently, the Catholic bishops conference of the nation, called the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM), sought an audience with U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People, Randy Berry, who visited the country this month. ECM Chair Archbishop Thomas Msusa of Blantyre explained why the bishops wanted such a meeting, as reported by Nyasa Times:
“Any discussion affecting the social and moral fibre of Malawi should at its best be as inclusive and accommodative as possible. Our teaching and a majority of our faithful have spoken clearly against the bullying of our international partners on issues of constitutional change to accommodate homosexuality in our laws.”
But, while Berry met with government offices and civic organizations, he did not meet religious leaders who wanted to defend homosexuality’s criminalization or believed international aid was tied to LGBT laws. Berry said assertions that U.S. aid is conditioned upon LGBT rights are “completely false,” but that these human rights could not be separated from broader concerns about governance in Malawi, reported Nysasa Times.
Five ECM bishops also brought up the idea of alleged international pressures about homosexuality in their mid-January meeting with President Peter Mutharika. They told him to “resist pressure” on LGBT human rights because these are “alien to most Malawians” and are “being championed by foreigners,” said Archbishop Msusa. He continued, according to All Africa:
” ‘As the Catholic Church, we say “no” to supporting these gay activities and we will follow strictly our church doctrine.’ “
President Mutharika recently said LGBTI people’s rights “should be protected,” but believes ultimately the populace should decide on whether to repeal Malawi’s anti-homosexuality law.
Malawi’s church leaders have spoken publicly against homosexuality from the pulpit, too. Bishop Mathews Mtumbuka of Karonga told a Catholic women’s gathering that gay people are “sinners who need to repent.” Bishop Montfort Sitima of Mangochi applauded a Catholic musician for cancelling his concert when questionable reports surfaced about two men kissing in the audience.
Being gay in Malawi is illegal, and a conviction could lead to up to fourteen years hard labor for men and up to five years imprisonment for women. The government dropped charges in December against two men, Cuthert Kulemeka and Kelvin Gonani, after their arrests for being gay drew widespread criticism.
Justice Minister Samuel Tembenu has issued a moratorium on enforcement of the anti-gay law,until further notice, though anti-LGBT politicians are challenging the legality of this moratorium. Homophobia is still quite prevalent in the nation’s politics. A spokesperson for minority party, People’s Part, said earlier this month that lesbian and gay people should be killed rather than jailed
Malawi’s bishops are promoting misinformation when they claim first that homosexuality is “alien” to Malawians and second that foreign aid is being used to pressure donor nations to adopt LGBT rights. Misinformation is problematic, but doubly so when used to endorse, implicitly as well as explicitly, anti-LGBT prejudices that have and can lead to discrimination, imprisonment, and violence.
Though Catholics are only 20% of the population, Malawi’s bishops possess tremendous authority in the country due to their critical role in the nation’s transition to democracy in the early 1990’s. Their voices weigh heavily in this debate about repealing the criminalization laws which, it should be noted, are not supported by church teaching.
The bishops should be defending the human rights of all people, even if disagreements about sexual ethics exist, instead of providing cover for those politicians and public figures whose homophobia and transphobia has and will have dangerous consequences. But as it stands, the bishops in political and ecclesial arenas alike are failing to defend and may even be causing harm to marginalized LGBT communities in Malawi.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry