Church forces Malawi into corner over gays

09 November 2012 - 02:05 By Reuters

The Malawian government has back-tracked on its decision to suspend arrests of gay people after churches fiercely criticised the move.

Justice Minister Ralph Kasambara was widely quoted in media this week as saying the government would suspend arrests pending a decision on whether to repeal laws banning homosexuality.

Yesterday, however, he said he had never made such statements and that laws carrying up to 14 years in prison for committing homosexual acts were still being enforced.

"There was no such announcement and there was no discussion on same-sex marriage," he told the Daily Times.

Homosexuality is illegal in 36 African nations and Malawi's anti-gay laws have caused friction with Western donors, whose assistance is crucial.

Justice Ministry sources said pressure from the Malawi Council of Churches, a group of 24 influential Protestant churches, and the Law Society had forced the U-turn.

"Our stance has always been that this practice should be criminalised because it runs contrary to our Christian values," said the Malawi Council of Churches' secretary-general, the Rev Osborne JodaMbewe.

In 2009, two men were arrested and charged with public indecency after becoming the first gay couple to marry in the socially conservative former British colony.

The prosecution drew international condemnation and was one of the reasons Western donors withdrew budget support to the government of Bingu wa Mutharika, who died in April.

A recent report presented to Mutharika's successor, Joyce Banda, recommended decriminalisation of same-sex marriages as a way of helping fight the spread of HIV/Aids.