Religious leaders in Ethiopia are forming a new association to promote so-called conversion therapy to change gay people’s sexual orientation.
Led by Dereje Negash, an Orthodox Christian priest who has spent more than a decade warning about the spread of homosexuality in Ethiopia, the leaders intend to introduce the association at an event in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Sunday.
It is part of a broader effort to pressure the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to take a harder line against sexual minorities.
“The reason we’re holding this event now is because the problem is escalating. Homosexuality is affecting a lot of children and expanding,” Dereje told AFP.
“Our goal is not to attack and destroy homosexuals, but to teach them and lead them to the truth.”
Conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, has been broadly denounced as pseudoscientific and ineffective.
But it is widely practised in parts of Africa, often fuelled by religion and “family and cultural pressures”, according to a report released last month by OutRight Action International, an LGBTI human rights organisation based in New York.
The report provided little information specific to Ethiopia, though it noted that forms of conversion therapy elsewhere on the continent include beatings and “exorcisms”.
Dereje told AFP he had successfully used his own form of conversion therapy – which involves fasting and visits to Ethiopian monasteries – to compel scores of people to abandon same-sex sexual acts.
One of them, a 44-year-old man who gave his name as Eliana, said he had identified as a gay man for more than two decades before meeting Dereje several years ago.
“What I’ve experienced in the past doesn’t make me feel good, so I don’t consider myself as a normal male. But God saved me from all those sins,” he said.
Another of Dereje’s purported success stories, a woman who declined to give her name, said she had Dereje to thank for turning her life around.
“I really wanted to leave this life because it’s one of the ugliest lives on earth,” she said. “You are apart from God. So you feel very wrong and you isolate yourself from the community.”
‘A LAME STANCE’
Sexual minorities are viewed with hostility by many in Ethiopia.
A 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that 97% of Ethiopians said society should not accept homosexuality. The US State Department’s Human Rights Report for 2018 said sexual minorities face “severe societal stigma”.
It is therefore not surprising that people would report having been “cured” via conversion therapy, said Dagmawi Woubshet, an Ethiopian literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Conversion therapy has been totally debunked. There are no legitimate international health or academic institutions that support it anymore,” he said.
“And for people saying, ‘Yes, it’s worked for me’ – that has to be taken in a context where the very idea of conversion is being promoted exclusively by people working hard to deny the existence and welfare of gay Ethiopians.”
The country’s penal code calls for up to 15 years in prison for same-sex sexual acts, though arrests and prosecutions have been very rare.
Dereje told AFP he wants the law to be toughened, saying “25 years of jail or lifetime imprisonment” could be sensible punishments for at least some offenders.
At a press conference this week, Dereje and seven other religious leaders appeared beneath a banner that said, “We won’t be silent about Ethiopia. Let’s save this generation from homosexuals.”
Dereje told journalists the government has been insufficiently vigilant in targeting sexual minorities, something he said the new association could help change.
“The government has a lame stance,” he said.
Prime Minister Abiy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Though Dereje said the association would welcome members of all faiths, six of the seven religious leaders who appeared alongside him at the press conference were from the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
The seventh, evangelical preacher Daniel Tesfay, reiterated Dereje’s claim that the new association did not have ill will toward sexual minorities.
“We don’t have hate against homosexuals,” he said.
“In one way or another they are our family. However, the goal of this association is to help them quit these acts.”
Woubshet warned that political tensions ahead of general elections planned for May 2020 could make the climate more hostile.
“Given the present politics in Ethiopia, where tensions are high, sexual minorities become an easy target,” he said.
“It’s a way of masking ethnic, religious, and political divisions the country is reckoning with now and instead trying to establish a common enemy in sexual minorities. That’s my concern as we move toward the election.”