KAMPALA, Uganda – Gay activists are hoping Pope Francis will preach tolerance toward homosexuals, and even go so far as to condemn violent attacks against gays during his upcoming visit to Uganda. Church leaders, however, are praying he'll avoid the issue altogether.
The divergent expectations underscore the acrimonious state of the gay rights debate on a continent where homosexuality remains taboo and homosexuals are greatly despised. In Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal and where attacks against gays have forced many to seek refuge abroad or lead secret lives at home, gay leaders nevertheless hope Francis will weigh in with a firm message of tolerance.
"I see this particular pope as more progressive but I wouldn't call him an ally like (President) Obama," said Frank Mugisha, a prominent gay leader. "I would like to see his position very clearly because what he said came as a by-the-way when he said he can't judge."
Francis famously said "Who am I to judge?" in referring to a purportedly gay priest. He has called for a church that is more tolerant and welcoming for those on the margins, including gays.
But he has also denounced what he calls the "ideological colonization" of the developing world, a reference to the way wealthy countries and non-governmental organizations condition development aid on Western ideas about contraception and human rights.
In Africa, that can boil down to the loss of international funding for school or health programs unless they promote condom use. Some European countries such as Sweden and Norway cut finding to Uganda's government when it passed an anti-gay bill, which had widespread support in Uganda even as the international community condemned it as draconian.
The bill was signed into law last year before a court nullified it on a technicality; an earlier version had prescribed the death penalty for some homosexual acts. Homosexuality is still criminalized under a colonial-era law banning sex acts against the order of nature.
Stronger anti-gay legislation was supported by local church leaders who said it was necessary to protect poor African children from Western homosexuals who lure them with money.
At a recent Vatican meeting on family issues, African cardinals were at the forefront in blocking the church's overtures to gays and in insisting that the Catholic Church as a whole denounce this "ideological colonization," saying wealthy countries have no right to impose their ideas on poor countries with different cultural views.
"I doubt that Pope Francis will talk about homosexuals," said Archbishop John Baptist Odama, who heads the local conference of Catholic bishops. "There is a clear teaching of the church on homosexuality. Because the aim of it is not to promote life but to act against it, those with that tendency are called to abstinence."
The Vatican spokesman refused last week to say whether Francis would wade into the debate, but he would be unlikely to go against the wishes of his local bishops. That's just fine with many Ugandans, who hope Francis will avoid the subject and instead preach more broadly about improving the lives of marginalized people.
Simon Lokodo, a Ugandan ethics minister who publicly condemns homosexuals, said any statement on tolerance for homosexuals would be unpalatable to most Ugandans.
"I am praying that he doesn't talk about this. Because it will open a Pandora's box," he said. "Here in Uganda the tone is different. If he is to talk about homosexuals, then let him focus on acceptance but not tolerance. We have always condemned this style of life, especially in the line of exhibitionism. It is bad enough that homosexuals are there, but let them not go ahead and expose themselves."
Mugisha, the gay activist, believes a message of compassion from Francis might challenge local church leaders to be less hostile toward those who are openly gay.
"We want a positon that is very clear from the Vatican that says, 'Do not discriminate, do not harm homosexuals,' a message of tolerance," he said.
Although the controversial law was overturned, attacks persist against gays, who face eviction by landlords when they are reported by neighbors, as well as being extorted by the police, according to activists.
A lesbian woman who works for a local rights group was recently attacked while returning home by men who banged her head against the gate, leaving her with serious facial wounds, Mugisha said. Six attacks against LGBT Ugandans were reported in October, forcing Mugisha's group to convene an emergency security meeting, he said.
"The spiritual leaders in Uganda have actually incited the Ugandan society against gay people," said Anthony Musaala, a Catholic priest who was suspended in 2013 after a paper he wrote exposing alleged transgressions by Ugandan priests was leaked to the local press. "Someone like Pope Francis, when he says 'Who am I to judge,' is very much trying to underscore the proper teaching of the church."