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Botswana Churches, LGBTQ Tensions Rise Ahead of Same-Sex Relations Vote

FILE - A rainbow flag is seen as demonstrators from the Coalition of Botswana Christian Churches chants slogans against homosexuality and hold placards while marching toward the Parliament of Botswana on July 22, 2023.

GABORONE — Tensions are rising in Botswana between the LGBTQ and Christian communities after members of the evangelical church community organized a march over the weekend against a bill that could decriminalize same-sex relations.

The ongoing tensions come ahead of a National Assembly debate that is expected to begin this week on the controversial bill.

A 2019 High Court ruling supported LGBTQ+ rights in Botswana, sparking a backlash by conservative groups.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community say they are not pleased with efforts by religious leaders to influence legislators.

Thato Moruti, chief executive of the group Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana, or LEGABIBO, says he believes the church may be starting "a very dangerous trend by manipulating the legislators and the courts."

"It is important that we understand that the church’s move may be causing some sort of destabilization of democracy in the country because they are trying to push this Christian fundamentalism on Batswana," said Moruti.

Moruti added that there is a need to find common ground instead of confrontation between the church and the LGBTQ+ community.

“It is important that we push for non-combative approaches especially with all organizations and institutions," said Moruti. "This, I believe, will allow for trust with stakeholders and also foster progress on common justice goals. It is also important to focus on issues of prevention and not redress. It is very important that we seek to prevent human rights abuses before they occur.”

'Action will open floodgates of immorality'

Handing a petition to parliament during the weekend protest, Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana chairperson Pulafela Siele urged legislators to vote against the measure.

“The EFB believes that if parliament is to act as required by the bill, such an action will open floodgates of immorality and abomination in the nation such as same-sex marriage, changes of school curriculum to teach our children such practices," said Siele.

Members of the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana during a protest against a Bill that seeks to legalize same-sex relations held in Gaborone, July 22, 2023.
Members of the Evangelical Fellowship of Botswana during a protest against a Bill that seeks to legalize same-sex relations held in Gaborone, July 22, 2023.

Botswana’s High Court ruled in 2019 that laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations were unconstitutional. Tshiamo Rantao, the lawyer who represented the LGBTQ community in the 2019 case, said parliament has no mandate to debate the bill, but instead must respect the judgement.

But legislator Wynter Mmolotsi, who received the petition on behalf of the National Assembly, told VOA it is now up to parliament to decide.

“The laws that we make are for the good governance of the republic, and therefore I do not think the court can tell parliament what to do," said Mmolotsi.

There has been a pushback against gay rights in some African countries, with protests held in Malawi last week, while Uganda has passed stiffer anti-LGBTQ laws.

Pope to transgender person: 'God loves us as we are'

On Tuesday, while responding to audio messages from young people, Pope Francis has told a young transgender person that "God loves us as we are."

His comments, the latest outreach gesture towards the LGBTQ community, were in a podcast released by the Vatican ahead of a Catholic youth festival which Francis will attend in Portugal next week.

Francis has famously said "who am I to judge" in an answer to a question specifically about homosexuals, and has condemned laws criminalizing members of the LGBT community as a sin and an injustice.

At the same time, the 86-year-old pontiff has reaffirmed that marriage can only be understood as a life-long union between a man and a woman. He backs civil laws giving same-sex couples rights in bureaucratic matters such as pensions and health care.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.