Churches force Malawi to change tune on anti-gay law

LILONGWE Thu Nov 8, 2012 9:56am EST

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LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawi's government has back-tracked on its decision to suspend arrests of gays, after churches in the strongly Christian country fiercely criticized 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.

However, on Thursday 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 to propping up the economy of the impoverished southern African nation.

Justice ministry sources told Reuters 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 criminalized because it runs contrary to our Christian values," said the Malawi Council of Churches' Secretary General, Reverend Osborne Joda-Mbewe.

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 decriminalization of same-sex marriages as a way of helping fight the spread of HIV/AIDS.

(Reporting by Mabvuto Banda; Editing by Jon Herskovitz)

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