|Stephane Tchakam, ILGA|
An online petition containing more than 450,000 signatures has been presented to the Uganda Parliament, urging members to withdraw a proposed bill that, if passed, would broaden the criminalization of homosexuality in the East African country and introduce the death penalty in certain cases.
Organized by internet-based advocacy group Avaaz, the petition was delivered on March 1 by human rights activists, health care workers and church leaders, including the Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha, a Ugandan Anglican priest who in 1992 became the first religious leader in Africa to declare that he was HIV-positive.
The bill "is violating our cultures, traditions and religious values that teach against intolerance, injustice, hatred and violence," says Byamugisha, according to the Avaaz website. "We need laws to protect people -- not ones that will humiliate, ridicule, persecute and kill them en masse."
Byamugisha was joined in delivering the petition by former West Buganda Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo, who was excommunicated in 2006 by the Church of Uganda for his support of homosexuals, and Ugandan gay rights advocate Frank Mugisha.
The bill, which is currently being debated by the Ugandan Parliament, has received widespread condemnation from international religious and political leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who said: "We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are, whether it is here in the United States or... more extremely, in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda."
International criticism drove Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to call for a review of the proposed legislation.
The petition, addressed to Museveni, members of the review committee, and donor governments, says: "We stand with citizens across Uganda who are calling on their government to withdraw the anti-homosexual bill, and to protect the universal human rights embodied in the Ugandan constitution. We urge Uganda's leaders and donors to join us in rejecting persecution and upholding values of justice and tolerance."
The Voice of America website reports that Alice Jay, campaign director for Avaaz, says her organization became involved in the petition drive "after receiving numerous requests from concerned Ugandans."
"The strongest critics of this came from within Uganda and one of them said very clearly, 'There is homophobia in Uganda like in most of the world. But we do not want our laws to be based on it,'" Jay was reported as saying.
Leaders throughout the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion who have opposed the law include Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and Archbishop of York John Sentamu, a Uganda native.
Williams has said the proposed changes in the law are "of shocking severity" and he could not see "how it could be supported by any Anglican."
Expressing her concern in an early December statement, Jefferts Schori said "the public scapegoating of any category of persons, in any context, is anathema."
Homosexuality in Uganda currently carries a penalty of up to life imprisonment. If passed, the proposed bill would introduce the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," which includes assault against people under the age of 18 and those with disabilities.
Opponents fear that people, including family members, clergy and counselors, who support and advise homosexuals could be prosecuted and punished under the proposed law.
The Church of Uganda called Feb. 9 for a new bill that that would amend the country's penal code to make its current anti-homosexuality laws more comprehensive, addressing what it called "loopholes," in particular to protect "the vulnerabilities of the boy child"; "proportionality in sentencing"; and "ensuring that sexual orientation is excluded as a protected human right."
The church's position paper said the Church of Uganda believes that "homosexual practice has no place in God's design of creation, the continuation of the human race through procreation, or His plan of redemption."
Signed by Archbishop Henry Orombi, the paper notes that the church appreciates the objectives of the bill which seek to "prohibit and penalize homosexual behavior and related practices in Uganda as they constitute a threat to the traditional family."
The bill was first proposed in October 2009 by Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati, who has been reported as saying, "We don't recognize homosexuality as a right. We are after the sin, not the sinners. We love them -and we want them to repent and come back. It's not an inborn orientation, it's a behavior learnt - and it can be unlearnt. That's why we are encouraging churches and mosques to continue rehabilitating and counseling these people."