An event hosted by a gay advocacy group, African Men for Sexual Health and Rights, scheduled for Saturday in Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa, is causing a major controversy as religious leaders have been lobbying to prevent it, while state authorities apparently refuse to intervene.
Ethiopia will host the 16th international conference on HIV/AIDS in Africa, for which the government is pleased will bring some publicity to the capital.
But a "pre-conference" called "Claim, Scale-up, and Sustain" is being organized by a gay advocacy group, causing the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian churches, as well as Muslim leaders, to demand the cancellation of the event, saying it would violate the country's conservative culture, Reuters reported.
Gay culture is not tolerated in Ethiopia, as is the case in many sub-Saharan countries. Homosexual acts in the country carry penalties of imprisonment of up to 15 years. Nigeria is currently considering a similar law, which could make acts of homosexuality punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Abune Paulos, the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has been vocal about the gay issue in the past.
"For people to act in this manner they have to be dumb, stupid like animals," he told reporters in 2008, according to Reuters. "We strongly condemn this behavior. They have to be disciplined and their acts discriminated, they have to be given a lesson."
Paulos has also called for a constitutional ban on homosexuality in the past. He was reported to have called homosexuality "the pinnacle of immorality."
Some 43 percent of Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians, making the denomination the largest church in the country.
Tuesday, young church activists reportedly handed out dossiers railing against the weekend meeting on "men who have sex with men (MSM) in Africa and HIV."
"We were prompted to sound this alarm after this group launched immoral activities that would tarnish and dirty our culture," read part of the dossier, according to Reuters.
The gay advocacy group announced on its website that the aim of the "pre-conference" is to "increase attention on MSM/LGBTI and HIV related issues in Africa, to reflect on the state of the response in MSM communities on the continent, and to identify ways forward for scaling up MSM and HIV interventions."
The issue of homosexuality and AIDS overlap in Africa. According to an article posted on the website of UNAIDS – a United Nations-derived agency that monitors HIV/AIDS issues – in 2008: "In addition to revealing higher levels of HIV, other key themes emerging from the various African research projects and initiatives indicate that many men who have sex with men in Africa also have female sexual partners and do not necessarily identify themselves as gay."
Health Minister Tedros Adhanom met with religious leaders this week, but made no denunciation of the gay group's gathering, Reuters reported.