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Sat October 12, 2013

'God Loves Uganda': How Religion Fueled An Anti-Gay Movement

Originally published on Sat October 12, 2013 6:40 pm

Four years ago, a bill was introduced in Uganda's parliament that would criminalize same-sex relations. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill has not yet become law, but it has drawn international attention to the animosity against gays in the African nation.

In the documentary God Loves Uganda, director Roger Ross Williams traces the bill's origins to the American evangelical missions in Uganda.

"American evangelicals have done a lot of great work," Williams tells All Things Considered weekend host Arun Rath. "But it's a certain type of fundamentalist evangelical ideology that came in there and basically instilled in a lot of the young people in Uganda this message that biblical law is above any other law."

The film traces the missionary efforts of the International House of Prayer (IHOP) and follows a group of young people on a trip to Uganda.

"I think that the young missionaries in the film are really innocent and well meaning. They are just the foot soldiers, as I like to call them," Williams says.

He believes that powerful evangelical leaders have a larger agenda:
"Everyone I've talked to in my film has said, 'You know, look: America's lost.' As marriage equality has passed, America is lost to them, but they are winning the war in Uganda.

"And they believe that this war will be won by eradicating what they believe is sexual sin, and that means homosexuality. And that message gets translated very differently in an African context."

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo became an advocate for LGBT rights, when he began counseling young homosexual men who were being persecuted by their churches and families. "When I talked to these young people, they were so worried," he says. "And they didn't know really what they were, actually, because of the way they were being treated in our community. And I said, 'Accept yourselves as you are.' "

Senyonjo says his church urged him to condemn the men but that he refused.

"I believe this is the call, which God has called me to bring the good news to LGBTQ people," he says. "That they also were created by God, made in the image of God, which a number of our churches don't like to say."

Senyonjo was excommunicated by the archbishop of Uganda in the early 2000s, but has continued his ministry and activism. He says there are times when he's been fearful for his life. In 2001, he stayed in the U.S. for six months.

"But I felt God wanted me to go back," Senyonjo says. "I've been harassed, but people are coming to know that what I'm trying to do is not really something which should make someone regarded as an enemy of our nation."

Although Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill has stirred up major controversy, many activists and observers believe that it will not be brought before parliament for a vote. Senyonjo says the legislation has been a "blessing in disguise."

"This bill, I think, has helped us to understand that we are not all heterosexuals," he says. "There are different human sexualities which should be respected."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

In January 2011, David Kato, a gay rights activist in Uganda, was bludgeoned to death. A few months earlier, his name and photograph, along with that of 100 others, had been published in a tabloid newspaper. The article called for their execution as homosexuals. A preacher at his funeral made remarks calling homosexuality a curse and appealing to others to repent. At David Kato's graveside, Christopher Senyonjo, an excommunicated Anglican bishop, gave what he calls a proper farewell.

CHRISTOPHER SENYONJO: Really, don't feel discouraged. God created you. God is on your side. So may God give rest to our brother.

RATH: Christopher Senyonjo is one the people featured in a new documentary "God Loves Uganda." Director Roger Ross Williams traces the origins of Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill, which would criminalize same-sex relations to the American evangelical movement in Uganda. The film follows one of those groups from the International House of Prayer or IHOP.

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: IHOP itself is a church that has a $30 million a year operating budget and 1,000 full-time employees. And they are a missions base. They have a university, and their goal is to train missionaries to fulfill the great commission - to go out and to wean souls.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GOLD LOVES UGANDA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: God, we believe that the name the Pearl of Africa is not just a name but it is a prophetic declaration over that nation, that it is a pearl in your...

WILLIAMS: Uganda is unique in that it's been the focus of fundamentalist evangelicals from America for a long time. Uganda has the youngest population on the planet, with the median age of just above the age of 15. You know, America evangelicals have done a lot of great work, but it's a certain type of fundamentalist evangelical ideology that came in there and basically instilled in a lot of the young people in Uganda this message that biblical law is above any other law.

RATH: Could you talk about how - you portray in the film - how biblical beliefs become intertwined with political beliefs leading to the creation of this anti-homosexuality bill.

WILLIAMS: I think that the young missionaries in the film are really innocent and well-meaning. They are just the foot soldiers, as I like to call them. But I think there is the leaders. They believe that Uganda, they have an advantage. And everyone I've talked to in my film has said, you know, look, America's lost. As marriage equality has passed, America is lost to them, but they are winning the war in Uganda.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GOD LOVES UGANDA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: God has what I would like to call an army of young people, only because I like that word as - it's an intense word. But they're not a military. Or I don't want to make that distinct - they don't have guns. They have Bibles.

WILLIAMS: And they believe that this war will be won by eradicating what they believe is sexual sin, and that means homosexuality. And that message gets sort of translated very differently in an African context.

RATH: Bishop Senyonjo, how did you become involved in the fight for gay rights?

SENYONJO: Well, I got involved when I first met some young men who were being prosecuted for being different. And the church was not understanding them, their families. When I talked to these young people, they were so worried, and they didn't know really what they were, actually, because of the way they were being treated in their community. And I said, accept yourselves as you are.

But my church, hearing this, was quite annoyed with me. So they were saying I should condemn these young people, which I said I couldn't and I can't, because this is the call which God has called me to bring the good news to LGBTQ people that they're also created by God, made in the image of God, which a number of our churches don't like to say.

RATH: You mention these young people that you say they didn't even quite realize that they were homosexual. And I'm recalling a scene in the film where there's a lot of propaganda about homosexuality in Uganda, this anti-gay rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTI-GAY RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible) is suddenly in Uganda. They said they are ready to fight those who are ready to kill, those who are doing homosexual. Hands up.

RATH: Activists there had been harassed, beaten and some killed. I'm wondering, Bishop Senyonjo, are you fearful for your life at all?

SENYONJO: There are times when I am fearful for my life. In 2001, I stayed in this country for six months for fear for my life. But I felt God wanted me to go back. And I've been harassed, but people are coming to know that what I'm trying to do is not really something which should make someone regarded as an enemy of our nation.

RATH: Bishop Senyonjo, has this bill, you know, the talk of this anti-homosexuality law, has it invigorated the LGBT activists?

SENYONJO: Yeah. I think the bill has been a blessing in disguise. This bill, I think, has helped us to understand that we are not all heterosexuals. There are different human sexualities, which should be respected.

RATH: That's Christopher Senyonjo. He's featured in the new documentary "God Loves Uganda." We also spoke with Roger Ross Williams, the director and producer of the film. Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill has stirred up international controversy. And many activists and observers now believe that the bill will not be brought before parliament for a vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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