Thursday, January 08, 2009

Condom Burnings and Anti-Gay Witch Hunts: How Rick Warren Is Undermining AIDs Prevention in Africa

Quoting Max Blumenthal of

"Once hailed by Time magazine as "America's Pastor," California megachurch leader and best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren now finds himself on the defensive.

"Warren's defense against charges of intolerance ultimately depends upon his ace card: his heavily publicized crusade against AIDS in Africa. Obama senior adviser David Axelrod cited Warren's work in Africa as one of "the things on which [Obama and Warren] agree" on the Dec. 28 episode of Meet the Press. Warren may be opposed to gay rights and abortion, the thinking goes, but he tells evangelicals it is their God-given duty to battle one of the greatest pandemics in history. What could be wrong with that?'"

Well, let me see. How about, "Warren's involvement in Africa reveals a web of alliances with right-wing clergymen who have sidelined science-based approaches to combating AIDS in favor of abstinence-only education. More disturbingly, Warren's allies have rolled back key elements of one of the continent's most successful initiative, the so-called ABC program in Uganda. Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, told the New York Times their activism is "resulting in great damage and undoubtedly will cause significant numbers of infections which should never have occurred."

"Warren's man in Uganda is a charismatic pastor named Martin Ssempa. The head of the Makerere Community Church, a rapidly growing congregation, Ssempa enjoys close ties to his country's first lady, Janet Museveni, and is a favorite of the Bush White House. In the capitol of Kampala, Ssempa is known for his boisterous crusading. Ssempa's stunts have included burning condoms in the name of Jesus and arranging the publication of names of homosexuals in cooperative local newspapers while lobbying for criminal penalties to imprison them.

"Dr. Helen Epstein, a public health consultant who wrote the book, The Invisible Cure: Why We're Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa, met Ssempa in 2005. Epstein told me the preacher seemed gripped by paranoia, warning her of a secret witches coven that met under Lake Victoria. "Ssempa also spoke to me for a very long time about his fear of homosexual men and women," Epstein said. "He seemed very personally terrified by their presence."

"When Warren unveiled his global AIDS initiative at a 2005 conference at his Saddleback Church, he cast Ssempa as his indispensable sidekick, assigning him to lead a breakout session on abstinence-only education as well as a seminar on AIDS prevention.

"During the early 1990s, when many African leaders denied the AIDS epidemic's existence, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni spoke openly about the importance of safe sex. With the help of local and international nongovernmental organizations, he implemented an ambitious program emphasizing abstinence, monogamous relationships and using condoms as the best ways to prevent the spread of AIDS. He called the program "ABC." By 2003, Uganda's AIDS rate plummeted 10 percent. The government's free distribution of the "C" in ABC -- condoms -- proved central to the program's success, according to Avert, an international AIDS charity.

"On New Year's Eve 1999, Janet Museveni, who had become born-again, convened a massive stadium revival in Kampala to dedicate her country to the "lordship" of Jesus Christ. As midnight approached, the first lady summoned a local pastor to the stage to anoint the nation. "We renounce idolatry, witchcraft and Satanism in our land!" he proclaimed."

And things went down hill from there.

"AIDS activists arrived at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006 with disturbing news from Uganda. Due, at least in part, to the chronic condom shortage, HIV infections were on the rise again. The disease rate had spiked to 6.5 percent among rural men and 8.8 percent among women -- a rise of nearly two points in the case of women. "The ‘C' part [of ABC] is now mainly silent," said Ugandan AIDS activist Beatrice Ware. As a result, she said, "the success story is unraveling."

"With safe sex advocates on the run, Warren and Ssempa trained their sights on another social evil. In August 2007, Ssempa led hundreds of his followers through the streets of Kampala to demand that the government mete out harsh punishments against gays. "Arrest all homos," read placards. And: "A man cannot marry a man." Ssempa continued his crusade online, publishing the names of Ugandan gay rights activists on a Web site he created, along with photos and home addresses. "Homosexual promoters," he called them, suggesting they intended to seduce Uganda's children into their lifestyle. Soon afterward, two of President Museveni's top officials demanded the arrest of the gay activists named by Ssempa. Terrified, the activists immediately into hiding.''

Rick Warren's disapproval of gays and lesbians has far reaching influence and we cannot afford to let up on this issue. I urge every person who reads this to go to and urge the Obama Transition team to acknowledge that Warren's AIDS program in Africa is seriously flawed and causing real damage in Uganda; that Rick Warren simply is not an appropriate person to honor with a prominent role in the Obama Inaugural.

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