A new church in Rwanda has opened its doors to the country’s LGBT+ community, providing them with a safe space to worship on their own terms.
The new church, called the “Church of God in Africa in Rwanda,” is based in the capital, Kigali. It comes at a time when the LGBT+ community in Rwanda is gradually gaining acceptance and respect within a still largely conservative society.
While many mainstream houses of prayer have sent them away, or made them feel unwelcome in the past, today more and more Rwandans are feeling safe to come out as gay, lesbian or transgender.
The church also provides a place of comfort to those without support systems, or who are shunned by society and their families.
Jean D’amour Abijuja, an openly gay member of the church, was kicked out of a Pentecostal Church in Kigali after it’s senior members discovered his sexual orientation.
Now, Abijuja has found a place of comfort. “When this church opened, I came here because we worship God without any stigma,” he told DW “Even someone like me with dreadlocks is welcome. And now, I am singing again.”
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Homophobia remains rife in Rwanda
Rwanda has neither legalized nor decriminalized same-sex relationships, but society still holds on to conservative attitudes towards homosexuality.
The ambiguity in the existing laws leaves members of the LGBT+ community in a state of limbo.
Abijuja says he sought solace from God and religion after feeling isolated by society. “We are faced with many challenges, but my advice to everyone is to come before God and pray to him for relief,” he explains, adding that isolation is particularly dangerous, as it could lead to depression or suicide.
Homophobia isn’t just common in religious communities in Rwanda, but also in the workplace.
Last year, famous Rwandan gospel singer, Albert Nabonibo, sent shockwaves through the country when he came out as gay. As a result, Nabonibo lost his job and was evicted from his apartment.
Pastor Jean de Dieu Uwiragiye, who is a member of the LGBT+ church, stresses his belief that God loves all people equally.
“We preach the good news, which does not discriminate against people,” he told DW. “Everyone is free to come here regardless of whether they are part of the LGBT+ community. What matters is preaching the love and salvation of God.”
Rwandan President Paul Kagame has, in the past, avoided questions about homophobia, claiming that the country was dealing with more important issues and that all Rwandans were equal before the constitution, despite the ambiguous laws.
Religion maintains strong influence
Around 93% of sub-Saharan Africans are either Christian (63%) or Muslim (30%), making the continent one of the world’s most religious regions.
These beliefs inform and shape many facets of people’s lives, including their attitudes towards the LGBT+ community.
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Ghana, a Christian-majority country (72%), has a mixed record when it comes to treating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people equally.
“The issue about gays is rather a difficult one, particularly in the African context,” Reverend Wilberforce Asare, a pastor at Victory Bible Church International in Ghana told DW. “If I narrow it down in the Ghanaian context, that is because, as a society, we frown on any form of sexual relations that are not between a man and a woman. That has been the tradition in our country.”
However, Reverend Asare believes that the church should welcome anybody who wishes to worship: “If someone that we consider to be gay, who in our inner thoughts could be someone said to be ‘unclean’, wants to come into the church, then we set up roadblocks against such a person. For me, that would be wrong and is an unacceptable practice.”
Ghanaian Shehu Dalhu Abdul Moomin believes gay people need treatment because “they are morally sick”
But not everyone is changing their long-held attitudes. Shehu Dalhu Abdul Moomin, the Chief of Zongo, Tamale and the Head of Shia Community in the Northern Region of Ghana, says homosexuality should be treated as a moral sickness.
“We have to see it this way,” he told DW. “Can you imagine a sailor of a ship at the airport trying or thinking of sailing a ship at the airport? It looks abnormal.”
He adds: “We are in a society and for them to live this way…It affects the society as well.”
Violence and rejection common in Uganda
In November 2019, Ugandan police rounded up 125 people in a gay-friendly bar in Kampala, dozens of whom now face charges.
But the authorities in Uganda aren’t the only ones seemingly hunting down the LGBT+ community. Religious groups in Uganda are considered to be even more hostile, to the extent that people who are openly gay are expelled from places of worship by pastors, priests or imams, according to Ugandan lawyer Nicolas Opiyo.
“So, the LGBT+ community has started their own faith movements to find spiritual nourishment,” Opiyo told DW.