Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung Projekte Veranstaltungen Verband

Religious freedom can only be ensured if churches are safe spaces for LGBTIQ+ people

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We believe in change 2023, Poster Vorderseite, ©Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung

We live in a world in which there is an unspoken assumption that human rights apply only to heterosexual people. This glaring gap in the protection of human rights also applies to the freedom of religion and belief. It means that the human rights of queer people – lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTIQ+) people ‒ are denied or restricted in the name of religion. It means that religion is instrumentalized for purposes of power, and that LGBTIQ+ people are systematically prevented from living their faith. How to change this situation was the focus of “We believe in change”, a project by the Hirschfeld Eddy Foundation. Here are the project’s main results, summarized in ten theses:

Thesis 1: There is only one world – not two.

To be queer and to be religious are inseparable parts of our project partners’ daily lives. However, opponents claim that religion is incompatible with LGBTIQ+ lives and people. And many religious LGBTIQ+ people are rejected by their congregations. That leads to isolation and desolation. We must reject this division. And we have to unmask this incorrect and dangerous narrative. Religion and LGBTIQ+ people are not from two different worlds – there is only one world, and queer believers are everywhere.

Thesis 2: Churches must be part of the solution – and no longer part of the problem.

Many churches have a problem with homosexuality, transgenderism, and all gender-related topics. But is that because of religion? The fact is that religion will always be misused to legitimize persecution and discrimination. The Zambian theologian Kapya Kaoma describes a campaign by conservative US-Americans who have successfully recruited a considerable number of prominent African religious leaders to restrict the human rights of LGBTIQ+ people in targeted form. As a result, hostility toward homosexual, bisexual, and trans people is on the rise in Africa – as seen in everything from higher levels of violence to anti-LGBTIQ+ laws which in extreme cases include the death penalty. Even at the United Nations, the right to religious freedom is instrumentalized and used like a “stop sign” (Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, expert in human rights) against the rights of women and LGBTIQ+ people.

Thesis 3: No violence! Agree on a minimum consensus.

Churches around the world are facing enormous challenges – with the biggest fault lines running through attitudes toward LGBTIQ+ and women’s rights. Some people say, “It’ll take years before there’s change in those areas.” But to sit back and wait is like failing to help in an emergency. The Christian religion is based on love of one’s neighbour, so churches can be part of the solution. One element has to consist of finding a common denominator, which means no violence! Violence is the antithesis of the Christian message.

Thesis 4: No development assistance for supporting persecution.

A large part of Germany’s humanitarian assistance and development cooperation is carried out by church organizations. In their work, these organizations often run into reservations and hostilities toward LGBTIQ+ people. Strategies are needed to counteract hostilities. Germany’s church aid organizations and mission agencies need to draw a line at support for violence against LGBTIQ+ people. Activists from the global South say the same thing: No funding for organizations that support persecution.

Thesis 5: Find cultures of openness.

All religions have traditions of openness and appreciation for the many different forms of human life. This is true of evangelicals as well. Also, more and more queer congregations are forming around the world in response to ostracism and marginalization. It is important to know and support them. Inclusive congregations and queer congregations are safe spaces.

Göttinnen, Foto: Claudia Reinhardt, Copyright: Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung

Thesis 6: Church work should be decolonial and anti-racist.

Hostility to homosexual, bisexual and trans people is part of the legacy of colonialism and Christian missionizing. Studies show that precolonial societies were more open in many ways. A critical approach to colonial history should therefore always be part of church work in the global South and of development cooperation in general.

Thesis 7: The desire for emancipation comes from every country in the world.

It is wrong and dangerous to claim that the fight for LGBTIQ+ and women’s rights are fuelled by an oppressive neocolonial agenda. It is wrong because the global South is fighting for these rights itself, and the desire for emancipation is coming from the very populations that once were colonized. To deny that is to deny their agency. And it is dangerous, because it plays into the hands of autocrats. They use the narrative of a neocolonial agenda to discredit any efforts by western states to promote human rights. Their aim is to undermine and weaken human rights and liberal democracies in general.

The desire to be recognized with the same rights as everyone else – regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics – comes from every region and every country in the world.

Thesis 8: Theological answers to theological questions

Absperrung, Foto: Claudia Reinhardt, , ©Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung

Genuine religious reservations must be answered with religious arguments, such as those discussed at a workshop on “Use the Bible to counter homophobia”. Workshops on these questions are offered not only in Germany but also in countries like Rwanda. Three interreligious networks in Africa are recommended here: The Global Interfaith Network for People of All Sexes, Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities & Expressions (GIN SSOGIE), the IDNOWA Interfaith Network in West Africa, and the Inclusive Affirming Ministries (IAM). All three use religious scriptures to counter discriminatory narratives.

Thesis 9: Preachers of hate are active – we need more preachers of love.

Major societal change is only possible by working together with religious authorities. The South African bishop Desmond Tutu showed that in wonderful ways. He once said he would rather go to hell than to a homophobic heaven. He is an excellent example of the importance of preachers of love – we need religious leaders who serve as agents of change.

Thesis 10: Bring people together to soften polarized discourse.

People’s hearts and minds can only be won over by direct personal contact. Bringing people together helps to stop demonization of LGBTIQ+ people. LGBTIQ+ topics are burning everywhere, and major churches are in danger of fracturing on account of them. “If we as Christians want to stick together, we have to dialogue with each other,” said a theologian at one of our events. In many African countries, NGOs are offering workshops that bring religious authorities and queer religious people together. These two worldviews generally encounter each other there for the first time. One religious authority had this to say after a workshop: “I realized that we’re talking about people here.”

Human beings came from Africa, so LGBTIQ+ people came from Africa too.”

Davis Mac-Iyalla, IDNOWA, Ghana, Hirschfeld-Eddy conference in Osnabrück, 2023

Bury the tired myth”

Trends both in the present and the past reveal that it is time for Africans to bury the tired myth that homosexuality is ‘un-African’. … Ironically, it is the dominant Judaeo-Christian and Arabic religions, upon which most African anti-homosexuality proponents rely, that are foreign imports.” Sylvia Tamale, Uganda, 2003

We are the other religious voice in Africa.”

For the past 28 years we have sought to become a constructive and alternative religious voice in Africa regarding the intersections of gender, sexuality, health and religion that seeks to advance the rights and freedoms of LGBTIQ+ in faith communities. We currently work with partners in Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.

All our activities, big or small, are aimed at eradicating religiously instigated homo, bi and transphobia. … We focus on empowering change agents to take action.” Ecclesia de Lange, Inclusive Affirming Ministries (IAM), South Africa, Hirschfeld-Eddy conference in Osnabrück, 2023

Use the Bible to counter homophobia”

The Church affirms that all people are of sacred worth and are equally valuable in the sight of God. It is committed to be in ministry with all people. The Church implores families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. Here, in my country, based on Rwandan society, culture and Biblical interpretations, the church leaders are reluctant to make a decision about LGBTIQ+ [inclusion]. I am not representing my Church [when I say this], but what I see is that some of them are beginning to understand the existence of the LGBTIQ+ community. It is a process. Let us believe in change. God is on our side.” Reverend, Inclusive Mission for Health and Hope (IMHH), Rwanda, Hirschfeld-Eddy webtalk, 2023

Download Poster here (German)

We believe in change – New perspectives on the human right to religious freedom

We believe in change 2023, Poster Rückseite, ©Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung

Religion and spirituality must be open to everyone equally. What characterizes us as human beings is that we search for meaning and context, that we look for guidance in beliefs or worldviews, and that we go through life together. These deeply human needs are protected by the right to the freedom of religion or belief (see These noble freedoms are instrumentalized).

The freedom to practice one’s faith together with others is especially important in places where religion plays an undeniable and existential role – for example, in most countries and regions of the African continent.

But in precisely these countries, millions of people are refused their right to freedom of religion. They are excluded from churches and congregations, rejected by their families, and demonized – or even persecuted. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, non-binary and non-conforming people of different genders are a persecuted minority in many countries of the world. Although they share the same faith, they are branded as sinners by preachers of hate, and thereby subjected to hostility and violence (see Do my fellow Christians know the damage they are wreaking?).

The roots of this supposedly Christian practice stem from the cruel, racist and misanthropic ideologies of colonization and missionization from Europe (see The legacy of German missionaries in Tanzania). Christian missionary organizations in Germany are aware of this appalling tradition, and seek to make churches safe spaces for all marginalized people (see Churches should be a safer space).

Today, fundamentalist, imperialist and neocolonial groups from North America and Russia are building on the ideological vestiges of European colonialism. They invest large amounts of capital into fostering prejudices, instrumentalizing the Christian religion, and turning LGBTIQ+ people into scapegoats (see American evangelicals influence laws in Uganda, Using African religious leaders to legitimize American positions, and The Russian Orthodox Church in Africa).

Despite this highly problematic and often life-threatening situation, there is hope. That is because, in the words of the activist S. from Uganda, “Africa is also the continent of reconciliation” (see For Africa the path to religious harmony is conceivable).

The Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation had a year-long opportunity to analyse this complex set of issues and to develop shared perspectives for human rights and freedoms together with church representatives and queer activists from the global South and North in both in-person meetings and online dialogues. The project was called “We believe in change”, and this poster summarizes its results. The ten theses it developed (see front side) clearly show that:

Religious freedom can only be ensured if churches, congregations and faith institutions are safe spaces for LGBTIQ+ people.

These noble freedoms are instrumentalized

Respect for the right of all human persons to thought, conscience and religion or belief is a must; at the same time, all stakeholders have a responsibility to ascertain when these noble freedoms have historically been – and continue to be – instrumentalized to nurture, perpetuate or exacerbate violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans and gender diverse persons.” UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity

Do my fellow Christians know the damage they are wreaking?

Engel, Foto: Claudia Reinhardt, , ©Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung

As an African cleric with a special interest in ethics and human rights, I find it disturbing when Christians use religion to destroy rather than build. My interactions with human rights activists in various African countries have made me wonder whether my fellow Christians know the level of damage they are wreaking on the continent. I know that we have the right to disagree, but it is immoral to use the authority of religion to destroy innocent lives. Jesus, the center of my religion, taught love not hatred toward neighbors. That gay person or young woman being demonized is surely the image of God.” Kapya Kaoma, Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa, 2012

The legacy of German missionaries in Tanzania

The bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) released a position paper called the Dodoma Statement in 2010. In it, they condemned same-sex marriage as incompatible with Tanzanian or African values. They also view homosexuality as an expression of immoral modern western living styles. With seven million members, the ELCT is the second-largest Lutheran church in the world.

The ELCT was founded more than a century ago during the German colonial period by representatives from the Bethel, Berlin and Leipzig Protestant missionary societies. … The term Sittlichkeit (“ethical order”), which often appears in documents from the time, figured prominently in missionary judgments of indigenous practices and conditions. It was based on a Christian understanding of natural law, by which the only legitimate form of sexuality was within a monogamous heterosexual marriage for the purpose of having children.

Polygamy was widespread in these areas, and the missionaries considered it a heathen practice irreconcilable with Christian morality. … In their eyes, all forms of sexuality outside monogamous marriage were ‘fornication’. In general they viewed ‘African sexuality’ as ‘primitive’ and ‘sensual’. … And they wanted to place the entire population on a new foundation of Christian monogamous marriage. Only a complete break with the past could lead the population to a God-given (sexual) order.

Today, ELCT bishops disagree with the valuation of ‘African sexuality’ as dirty and sinful. On the contrary, they are turning the tables and condemning sexual immorality in their western partner churches that allow same-sex marriages. This is a clear instance of postcolonial identity formation – pursued at the expense of LGBTIQ+ people in Tanzania and Africa in general.” Charlotte Weber, University of Münster, Hirschfeld-Eddy blog, 2023

Churches should be a safer space

Absperrung 2, Foto: Claudia Reinhardt,  ©Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung

“We affirm the continuing legacies of colonization and colonial thinking in our ways of relating as Children of God and commit to engage both separately and collectively with the ecumenical agendas of decolonization and reparations. (…) Churches should be a safer space for all marginalized including people of the LGBTQ+ community. The task of the churches is to take a stand against all forms of violence. Any form of incitement to violence was seen as a red line. Misinformation that leads to social marginalisation or even suicide is contradicting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In confronting as well all forms of racism and xenophobia, it is imperative to be guided by the liberating message of the Bible, which shows us ways to a respectful coexistence.” From: Ecumenical dialogue on LGBTQ+ realities: Insights from a conference at the Mission Academy in Hamburg, 2023

American evangelicals influence laws in Uganda

The intentional destructive movement of evangelical anti-LGBTIQ+ churches across the global South, including Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, has given rise to discriminatory laws that are endangering lives of queer-identifying friends and relations. These religious entities intentionally employ inciteful interpretations of faith that have cultivated a narrative of homophobia and transphobia, which in turn fans the flames of discrimination and violence against our community. … The notorious 2009 “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda, which initially proposed the death penalty for homosexuality before being nullified by the courts on technical grounds of quorum, unveiled the insidious influence of figures like American evangelical Scott Lively and his collaborators in Uganda, such as Steven Langa of the Family Life Network and Pastor Martin Ssempa. … Regrettably, these forces have now succeeded in facilitating the passage of an even more draconian anti-LGBTIQ law, possibly one of the world’s harshest, imposing life imprisonment and even death sentences for repeat convictions of same-sex intimacy. … It is our duty to confront these dangerous ideologies with unwavering determination.” S., activist from Uganda, Hirschfeld-Eddy conference in Osnabrück, 2023

Using African religious leaders to legitimize American positions

American conservatives who are in the minority within mainline churches depend on African religious leaders to legitimize their positions. The intensity of the resulting debates promotes the very real threat of schism in global church bodies, particularly within the Anglican Communion of which The Episcopal Church, USA, is a part. Conservative U.S. evangelicals play a strong role in promoting homophobia in Africa by spreading their views and underwriting the widespread conservative educational, social service, and financial infrastructure.” Kapya Kaoma, Globalizing the Culture Wars – U.S. Conservatives, African Churches & Homophobia, Political Research Associates, 2009

The Russian Orthodox Church in Africa

Since January 2022, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been establishing an official church structure throughout Africa. This violates Orthodox church law, which says its churches may not found structures on the territories of other Orthodox churches. According to the ROC, however, when the Patriarchy of Alexandria recognized the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine it lost its status as a church and Africa therefore no longer has a valid Orthodox church. In fact, the ROC’s expansion in Africa had been launched earlier by Russian diplomatic missions. But now the ROC is independently and demonstratively buying its way into Africa, with congregations currently in 25 African countries.

This will change the religious landscape, because the Russian Church attracts people not only with its money – to build churches, pay priests, and fund humanitarian projects – but also with its narrative about Western colonization of values and its claim that it, unlike the West, is defending persecuted Christians. The first ordination performed by the ROC’s Patriarchal Exarchate of Africa was for a Ugandan – whose ceremony was also attended by the Catholic bishop of Rabat in Morocco. The ROC is appropriating freedom of religion in targeted form. It is unclear to me how much church aid associations realize whom they will be dealing with in Africa in the future – and whether they have a strategy to address this.” Professor Regina Elsner, University of Münster, Hirschfeld-Eddy conference in Osnabrück, 2023

For Africa the path to religious harmony is conceivable

For Africa, a continent that largely embraced Christianity and other religions during colonization, relinquishing indigenous spiritual practices, the path to religious harmony is conceivable. To those religious institutions that have strayed from the tenets of love and acceptance, I beseech you to introspect. Reevaluate the messages you disseminate to your congregations, for it is your moral duty to heal, not to inflict harm.

As we congregate …, transcending diverse backgrounds, let us commit ourselves to dismantling narratives that perpetuate discrimination. Let our aspirations be fixed on a future where the principles of compassion and acceptance triumph over intolerance and hatred. Together, we can bequeath a legacy of unity, where the teachings of history guide us towards a world that respect the diversity inherent in God’s creation. For God pronounced all things beautiful upon their creation.” S., activist from Uganda, Hirschfeld-Eddy conference in Osnabrück, 2023

Photos: Claudia Reinhardt

Download Poster here (German)

A publication for the Hirschfeld Eddy Foundation project “We believe in change”: Human rights, freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination. All publications for the project can be found under the tag WBIC-2023 (some content in English)


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