KAMPALA, Uganda – Young men sing hymns and recite the Bible before the Rev. Christopher Senyonjo gives a sermon on human sexuality. When the service is over some go to his desk, one by one, for counselling no other Ugandan religious leader is known to offer gays.
Dressed in a purple shirt and white collar that highlight his Anglican faith, Bishop Senyonjo doesn't organize his Sunday evening prayers for homosexuals only. But his sermons attract many gays who are familiar with his sympathetic views in a country where other Christian preachers have led Uganda's anti-gay crusade.
For ministering to homosexuals, Senyonjo has become estranged from Uganda's Anglican church. He was barred from presiding over church events in 2006 when he wouldn't stop urging his leaders to accept gays. The parish that he once led doesn't even acknowledge his presence when he attends Sunday services there, underscoring how his career has suffered because of his tolerance for gays in a country where homosexuals — and those who accept them — face discrimination.
"They said I should condemn the homosexuals," he said, referring to Anglican leaders in Uganda. "I can't do that, because I was called to serve all people, including the marginalized. But they say I am inhibited until I recant. I am still a member of the Anglican church."
In a statement earlier this year, the head of the Anglican church in Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, said the church was committed to offering "healing and prayer" for individuals "who are confused about their sexuality or struggling with sexual brokenness."
Senyonjo disagrees with that stance, arguing that because "in every society there is a small number of people who have homosexual tendencies," gays can't be expected to change their sexual orientation.
The short, stocky 82-year-old cleric is a reassuring presence for Ugandan homosexuals pummeled by rampant anti-gay sentiment across the East African country. Many gays in Kampala, Uganda's capital, have fled their homes to places they deem safer, Senyonjo said on a recent Sunday as he waited for the first congregant to arrive at his makeshift church, the size of a small office. One man quietly took a seat, then two more. In the past, Senyonjo noted, many more people have been in attendance, perhaps indicating that some gays are now too afraid to even attend his service.
Homosexuality was largely an unspoken subject in Uganda before a lawmaker, saying he wanted to protect Ugandan children from wealthy Western homosexuals, introduced a bill in 2009 that originally proposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts. The legislation, widely popular in Uganda but condemned abroad as draconian, allows up to life imprisonment for homosexual acts. In signing the bill last month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he wanted to deter the West from promoting homosexuality in Africa.
Ugandan homosexuals say the new law was encouraged by some United States evangelicals who wanted to spread their anti-gay agenda in Africa and Senyonjo says that it isn't a baseless allegation. One day in 2009, he said, he attended a workshop at a Kampala hotel where he heard an American evangelical, Scott Lively, speak strongly against homosexuality. Lively, who has previously told The Associated Press he advised therapy for gays but denies urging severe punishment, has since been sued in federal court under the Alien Tort Statute that allows non-citizens to file suit in the U.S. if there is an alleged violation of international law.
The enactment of Uganda's new anti-gay law has spread fear among homosexuals, forcing many to flee to so-called "safe houses" where their new neighbors don't know they are gay. Such houses tend to be single rooms that are more likely to be locked up day and night because of safety concerns. One gay couple, playing cards inside their room, said they fled an angry mob in their former neighborhood. Another couple, bored from spending so much time indoors, plotted how to flee Uganda when their travel documents are ready. Many are jobless and without prospects in the Kampala slum where they live.
Ugandan gay leaders say the anti-gay measure has encouraged public anger against homosexuals. One Ugandan cleric who strongly opposes homosexuality has announced plans to hold a mass rally in Kampala on Monday to thank Uganda's leaders for passing the anti-gay measure despite Western pressure. The day after the measure was enacted, a Ugandan tabloid printed the names and some photos of people it said were Uganda's "200 Top Homos." That list included Senyonjo as an alleged gay "sympathizer," but he says he wasn't rattled by the publication and is urging gays not to be "intimidated."
Senyonjo's opposition to discrimination against gays has earned him the status of "an elder" in the eyes of the country's beleaguered gay community, said Pepe Julian Onziema, a prominent gay leader in Uganda who has known Senyonjo for many years. "Our relationship is one of giving support to each other. The backlash that we receive is equally the same," said Onziema, who added that Senyonjo has taken "a very courageous and brave stand."
Senyonjo said he lives off "gifts" from his children and friends after his pension was severed as "a kind of punishment" over his pro-gay activities.
"They (church leaders) cut off my pension," he said. "It is very difficult even for my family. But I know the truth and it has made me free."
The father of 10 children, Senyonjo sometimes finds it necessary to assert his heterosexuality. A young man recently testified in an Anglican parish that Senyonjo had been a witness to his homosexual past. The man, who now says he is heterosexual, said Senyonjo was part of a group with whom he traveled to neighboring Kenya to attend a workshop on gay rights. That "humiliating" event, Senyonjo recalled, may have led some people to believe he is secretly gay, and the cleric said he was glad his wife wasn't in church that day.
"I am heterosexual," he said on the recent Sunday he ministered to three young men.
Senyonjo's sermon that day focused on what he said was the lack of knowledge about human sexuality. "You counsel them and you find that's what they really are ... homosexuals," he said. "You can't say, 'Don't be that.' If someone is an African and you say that they are not African, then you are not doing something right."
Associated Press journalist Rebecca Vassie in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this report.