Uganda in the past five decades has experienced “the best of times and the worst of times.” In October 1964, twenty two Catholic martyrs were canonized by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council. Five years later, Paul VI became the first reigning pope to visit sub-Saharan Africa when he visited Uganda in July 1969. Included in his visit was a pilgrimage to the site at Namugongo where these new saints had been martyred in 1885-1886.
Christianity is now the predominant faith in Uganda about equally divided between Catholics and Protestants. The groups supporting the recent efforts to criminalize homosexuality in Uganda use Christian rhetoric. This is an unfortunate use of Christian terminology and does not authentically reflect the Christian traditions of Uganda. All Christians know the basic teaching that sexual activity of any kind outside of marriage is contrary to the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. On the other hand, it is also known that Christians are active in their prayers and thoughts about producing a positive atmosphere that will encourage Christian living.
In 1971, following a military coup, General Idi Amin seized control of the government. His seven year rule caused economic decline and social chaos. It was a distressing period of massive human rights violations. I remember this period very well as I served as the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda for part of that time.
With the assistance of Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere and Tanzanian armed forces, the tyrannical rule of Amin came to an end in 1978. Following this, the Ugandan people were able to restore their country so that it would seem more like the “pearl” of Africa, as once described by Winston Churchill who visited Uganda soon after this university studies. But, the new tranquility in Uganda is being threatened by a determined effort in the legislature to criminalize homosexuality. Gay Ugandans are being demonized. A recent bill would have enforced lifetime prison sentences and even the death penalty for gay acts. Neighbors could be punished by prison sentences for not reporting gay and lesbian neighbors to the authorities.
It is unfortunate that the campaign for these actions has been inspired by American missionaries and others. As I stated in a previous article on this matter, I urge U.S. faith leaders of all denominations to speak out against the campaign to demonize gays in Uganda. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “every sign of unjust discrimination” against gays should be avoided. As a layman I would like to observe that the legislation being advocated by a few, which emphasizes severe punishment, runs contrary to the Christian tradition. In view of the high numbers of Christians of all denominations in Uganda, this represents and opportunity for American faith leaders, especially Christians, to urge their co-religionists to respond more correctly to Christian teachings and traditions.
Recently, Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and I co-wrote an article for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog that concluded with these words: “Uganda is a proud, vibrant country that faces stark challenges and great opportunities. U.S. faith leaders who have come to know the indomitable spirit of her people now face an urgent question. Can we remain silent when human beings made in God’s image are persecuted? ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us. Let us heed that moral wisdom today.” I re-iterate that call to end the silence and heed that moral wisdom here at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Our Catholic faith in the inalienable dignity of every human being demands no less.