Getting off on the wrong foot

The San Francisco Chronicle had a story out of its Washington bureau that shows the importance of checking information you get from a press conference. Apparently the progressive Center for American Progress had an event about the fight for gay rights in Uganda. The event featured New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson and a former Anglican bishop of Uganda named Christopher Senyonjo. (In years past, his name was frequently spelled Ssenyonjo.) Unfortunately, the story reads a bit like a press release from the event. Here's the opening sentence:

A leading Anglican bishop who fled Uganda after receiving death threats blamed U.S. Christian evangelical groups Tuesday for fomenting anti-gay hatred in his native country.

The fact is that Senyonjo is not only not a leading Anglican bishop, he's not even a bishop any more. You can read a complete explanation from Ugandan Archbishop Luke Orombi, but he was excommunicated in 2006.

His problems began even earlier. In 2002, Orombi told Senyonjo he was "no longer entitled to wear the robes of a deacon, priest, or bishop in the Church of Uganda." This had to do with his advocacy for teachings on homosexuality contrary to the stated positions of the church. He has also been heavily involved with Integrity Uganda and raised funds from the US for this organization. The Rev. Erich Kasirye, a founder and chief spokesman for that group, was found to have misappropriated funds either directly through theft or indirectly by fabricating false tales of oppression of homosexuals. Or both. I'm a bit unsure. Senyonjo was not implicated with the fraud, but he was tainted by having vouched for the man. (Integrity USA has sponsored his most recent visit to the States.)

Now, some have alleged that the 2006 excommunication was because of his opposition to his church body's teaching on homosexuality but Orombi said "We do not approve of Christopher Ssenyonjo's support for the organization Integrity, nor do we support his teaching on homosexuality. But, that was not why he was deposed. He was deposed because he set himself up as an Archbishop and recruited a defrocked Ugandan Bishop as a co-consecrator to consecrate a morally compromised man as a bishop of an independent church." Apparently Senyonjo had formed a new denomination called the Charismatic Church of Uganda, which consecrated him a bishop of that church.

The point is, that even if the Center for American Progress or someone else described him as a "leading" bishop, it's a good idea to explain what, exactly, he is a leader of and whether that claim is even true. The story also says that Senyonjo had left Uganda under death threats, but I'm not sure that's true either. A reporter who covers Anglicans in Africa says that Senyonjo has been working on gay rights advocacy in Uganda for the past 10 years.

Anyway, it's kind of hard to continue reading a story when the very first phrase isn't even true, but it's another one of these attempts to blame the American Christian right for anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The story quotes liberally from a Ugandan newspaper's account of an address given recently by President Yoweri Museveni:

Ugandan government officials have complained about foreign interference in Uganda's affairs. Museveni last week told the New vision newspaper, "The African Church is the only one that is still standing against homosexuality. The Europeans are finished. If we follow them, we shall end up in Sodom and Gomorrah."

Museveni made the remarks while addressing thousands of pilgrims visiting the Church of Uganda shrine where in 1886, 90 Christians were assassinated on the order of former Uganda King Mwanga II, for refusing to denounce their faith. Museveni said the martyrs were fighting "immorality in Mwanga's palace."

"I hear there was homosexuality in Mwanga's palace," Museveni told the pilgrims. "This was not part of our culture."

This link to Museveni's speech provides a bit more information, but relying on the New Vision report weakens the overall significance of this martyr story. The Ugandan Martyrs are considered important by Christians because their deaths ignited the spread of Christianity throughout Africa. You can read their amazing story here, but the young men were killed because they refused to renounce their faith and submit to the sexual advances of the king. You just can't omit key details such as that.

One of my beefs with these American media attempts to blame American evangelicals for Ugandan legislation is that it's remarkably patronizing to the Africans. If reporters instead spent a fraction of their time speaking with more Ugandans and reported on the unique history, the religious and non-religious cultural history, and the current political climate there, that would be helpful.

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