What did the Nigerian bishop really say about gay men?

The Nigerian bishop was apparently unequivocal. In an interview with a news agency three years ago, he had described homosexuals as “inhuman, insane, satanic and not fit to live”. When two gay men in Malawi were jailed for 14 years last month (a sentence later quashed), news stories and an Observer leader repeated the bishop’s condemnation as an example of heightened hostility towards homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa. But did the cleric actually utter those inflammatory words?

Not if you believe the reporter who wrote the original story for the News Agency of Nigeria. A few days after his piece appeared on the UPI wire, he issued this extraordinary retraction:

“This is to inform the agency and the general public that the report credited to the Anglican Bishop of Uyo, Rt Rev Isaac Orama, was untrue. I wish to state here that the report was not a true reflection of the interview he granted journalists, while Bishop Orama never made any statement at any time to condemn perpetuators of such unbiblical acts to such an extent as was reflected in the report.

“The bishop was wrongly misrepresented and misquoted and I hereby render my apologies to him, the Anglican Diocese of Uyo and the Church of Nigeria for embarrassment caused them by the report.

“While I apologise for the mistake and to state that the report was not written in bad faith I wish to express my commitment to the evangelisation of the gospel through this medium.”

On the face of it, the reporter’s retraction would seem to be the end of the matter (leaving aside his unusual pledge to continue to use a government news agency to spread the gospel), but this is Nigeria, where the church, until this month led by the controversial Peter Akinola, is uncompromising in its condemnation of same-sex relationships, so it bears closer examination.

Commenting on the reporter’s retraction, Akinola Repent, a blog which campaigns for gay rights in Nigeria, said: “It sounds like his ‘confession’ was obtained at gunpoint – or certainly at the risk of his government job.”

Certainly, there is no attempt to explain how the bishop apparently came to be so badly misrepresented.

The editor-in-chief of UPI was challenged about the veracity of the story by Stand Firm, a US evangelical website that promotes what it calls “Traditional Anglicanism”. He replied: “UPI is taking down the story from our site and informing our customers of this action. If a retraction appears from NAN we will run it.” Oddly, the News Agency of Nigeria appears not to have issued that retraction. Perhaps it feels its reporter’s statement is enough.

Discussing the plight of gay men in Africa, the Observer‘s leader said the Anglican church’s quiet diplomacy had done nothing to help the victims of homophobic repression. “Increasingly, it looks like complicity,” it said, unfairly overlooking expressions of “deep shock” at the supposed remarks by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams .

In a statement at the time, Dr Williams said: “If these reports are correct, I would urge the bishop to apologise. Such comments are unacceptable and profoundly shocking on the lips of any Christian.”

So did Bishop Orama personally deny uttering those sentiments?

Five days after the story appeared, the Venerable Akintunde A Popoola, director of communications for the Church of Nigeria, said that Bishop Orama had “denied making the statements attributed to him”. Additionally, buried at the end of an unrelated story on the official Church of Nigeria website is a paragraph which says the bishop “lamented over what he called a false statement published on the internet and called on the media to desist from publishing wrong statements for public consumption”.

So the bishop apparently denies calling homosexuals “insane”, but appears to stop short at issuing a full-scale condemnation of the sentiments expressed in the disputed statement. And this is where the problem lies. Until such a statement is made, the UPI piece will still be quoted all over the internet by those wishing to expose homophobia in the African church. Consequently, it is still accessible to reporters and leader writers trying, in a hurry, to make sense of this disturbing story.

This column was originally published in The Observer on June 6, 2010.

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