Anglican Bishops in Southern Africa are calling for the release of the gay Malawi couple who were sentenced to 14 years of hard labor for their sexual orientation.
Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were arrested last December after holding an engagement ceremony in the city of Blantyre. They were found guilty last week, after being held in prison without bail, and given the maximum sentence of 14 years of hard labor.
The sentence was condemned by human rights advocates, as well as the U.S. government and the United Nations, although several African church leaders expressed support of the ruling.
The group of Anglican bishops noted that while there are a "breadth of theological views" on sexuality even among members of their denomination, "we are united in opposing the criminalization of homosexual people."
Calling the 14-year sentence a "gross violation of human rights," the bishops "strongly condemn[ed] such sentences and behavior towards other human beings."
"We emphasize the teachings of the Scriptures that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore must be treated with respect and accorded human dignity," they said, adding that such principles are at the "heart" of the South African constitution, "whose provisions we see as setting an example for the world to follow."
"We therefore call on our President and Government to pursue the same values and standards for the upholding of human well-being, dignity and respect, in our external relations; to engage in dialogue with their counterparts on the rights of minorities; and to oppose any measures which demean and oppress individuals, communities, or groups of people," they said.
"We urge them to press for the swift release of these two individuals, who have committed no act of violence or harm against anyone; for the quashing of the sentence against them; and for the repeal of this repressive legislation."
Africa's criminalization of homosexuals has garnered significant media attention since Uganda introduced a draconian measure last October that included the death penalty for homosexual activity.
The measure has received severe criticism from prominent faith leaders and government officials including evangelist Joyce Meyer, megachurch Pastor Rick Warren, and U.S. President Barack Obama.
A new petition launched this month by the Unitarian-Universalist Church is aiming to take further steps against the Uganda law and others like it.
The "Uganda Declaration," which was launched on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, is designed to challenge faith leaders to work for the decriminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people based on their tradition's human rights policies and official statements against violence.
The declaration notes that significant progress against the spread of HIV/AIDS is being "threatened by increasing homophobia in the name of religion."
"When religion is quick to judge, condemn and reject rather than love, inspire and bless, it becomes a damning force rather than a life giving one," the declaration states, adding that faith leaders often do not speak out in support of LGBT rights for fear of controversy.
The document further notes that "[c]ore Christian values of love of neighbor and welcome of strangers…do not allow for the persecution of LGBT people."
"All religions hold human beings as worthy of respect," it says.
"Public law must protect the vulnerable and stop the misuse of power in society, no matter its basis or source. People must not be imprisoned or executed because of who they love or their gender expression."
Declaration supporter Louise Brooks, communications director for pro-gay advocacy group Integrity, says that, "Fair-minded faith leaders in places like Uganda, the United States and throughout the world must speak out and use their faith networks to stop the hate, get rid of the anti-LGBT laws and live out their own core values of care for God's people."
Bruce Knotts, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, noted that, "Faith leaders in the United States know that almost all faith traditions have statements on the books that support human rights for all people."
"They are realizing that, regardless of their beliefs about sexual orientation or gender identity, their traditions support the human rights of all people," he said.
Supporters of the Uganda Declaration further note that some 80 countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, criminalize people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Seven of those countries include the death penalty.
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