A pending law – poised to pass possibly as early as this week – in Nigeria that would impose brutal penalties on all relationships, activism, advocacy, and shows of affection among lesbian and gay people violates basic religious principles of respect for human dignity and life, a group of more than 250 Christian leaders said in a letter to the Nigerian government today.

“Christianity teaches us to respect all our sisters and brothers, and that includes lesbians and gays,” said Reverend Susan Russell, Senior Associate for Pastoral Life at All Saints Episcopal Church. “Whether in Nigeria or in the United States, the Christian value of human dignity for all is paramount. We call upon the government of Nigeria to respect basic human dignity and reject the persecution of lesbians and gays by withdrawing the proposed law.”

The bill is entitled “Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2006,” but goes much further: it would attack all lesbian and gay individuals, families and human rights. The bill would provide for five years’ imprisonment to anyone who “goes through the ceremony of marriage with a person of the same sex,” “performs, witnesses, aids or abets the ceremony of same sex marriage” or “is involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private.” Any priest or cleric aiding or abetting such a union could be subject to the five-year prison term. The law would also prohibit adoption of children by lesbian or gay couples or individuals.

Homosexuality is already criminalised in Nigeria. Nigeria’s criminal code penalises consensual homosexual conduct between adults with 14 years’ imprisonment. Shari’a penal codes in effect in northern Nigeria continue to punish “sodomy” with the death penalty.

“I join spiritual leaders around the world in calling upon the Nigerian government to respect the dignity of its gay and lesbian citizens, just as the God who made us cherishes all of his children,” said the Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, Episcopal Bishop of Washington.

The letter by Christian leaders denounces the impact the law would have on lesbian and gay individuals and families, and on HIV/AIDS prevention efforts. It also underscores Nigeria’s international legal obligations to fundamental freedoms. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights affirms the equality of all people. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Nigeria acceded to in 1993, protects the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly and freedom of association. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders says that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels: b) to meet or assemble peacefully; and b) to form, join and participate in nongovernmental organisations, associations or groups.”

“As a Black Christian Leader in the United States, I am keenly aware of the effects of legalised discrimination,” said Reverend John Selders of Amistad United Church of Christ. “We are all God’s Children and have a right to share in the recognition of our human dignity.”

“The core of the Christian gospel is hospitality, love and justice, but the proposed law stands in stark contrast with each of these values,” said Reverend Rebecca Voelkel, ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “As Christian leaders, it is our ethical and moral obligation to speak loudly and clearly against such discriminatory legislation.”

In addition to the Reverend Susan Russell, Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, Reverend John Selders, and Reverend Rebecca Voelkel, more than 250 religious leaders signed the letter to the leadership of the Nigerian Senate in condemnation of the bill to criminalise gay rights.

“This law strikes a blow not just at the rights of lesbian and gay people, but at the civil and political freedoms of all Nigerians,” said Scott Long, director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “But lawmakers are pushing this repressive bill through with a minimum of public scrutiny or debate.”

The US State Department released a statement in February 2006 condemning the proposed legislation. It stated it was “concerned by reports of legislation in Nigeria that would restrict or prohibit citizens from assembling, organising, holding events or rallies, and participating in ceremonies of religious union, based upon sexual orientation and gender identity… The freedoms of speech, association, expression, assembly, and religion are long-standing international commitments and are universally recognised. Nigeria, as a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has assumed important obligations on these matters. We expect the Government of Nigeria to act in a manner consistent with those obligations.”

In a March 2006 letter to President Olusegun Obasanjo, a coalition of 16 human rights organisations – in Nigeria, elsewhere in Africa, and internationally – urged him to disavow the bill.

On February 23, 2007 four United Nations independent experts on human rights also condemned the bill. They stated, “In addition to clear elements of discrimination and persecution on the basis of sexual orientation, the Bill contains provisions that infringe freedoms of assembly and association and imply serious consequences for the exercise of the freedom of expression and opinion.” They added that it would “have a chilling effect for local human rights defenders who undertake peaceful advocacy on the adverse human rights implications of the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.”

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