By The Reverend Colin Coward Director of Changing Attitude England
Stephen Wariebi Hobobo, co-leader of the Changing Attitude Nigeria (CAN) group in Port Harcourt, has been granted asylum in the UK. Stephen applied for asylum in May 2008 having arrived in the UK in April.
He travelled to the UK following the violent assault on his life which occurred in Port Harcourt on Maundy Thursday 20 March 2008. He was savagely beaten in an attack outside the compound where the funeral ceremony for the sister of Davis Mac-Iyalla was taking place.
Stephen went into hiding and flew to the UK in early April, still having a valid visa from his previous visit in November 2007 when he addressed a National Union of Students Conference.
Having made contact with Changing Attitude leaders here and consulted with them about his safety and future in Nigeria, he applied for asylum in the UK. In September he was notified that his application had been refused. He appeal against the refusal was heard on 20 November in London. His solicitor informed him that his appeal had been successful on 4 December.
In granting asylum to Davis Mac-Iyalla and Stephen Wariebi Hobobo, the UK Government has recognised that lesbian and gay Christian leaders in Nigeria are under serious threat to their lives when their status and activity enters the public realm.
Davis Mac-Iyalla entered the public realm from the founding of Changing Attitude Nigeria in August 2005, gaining publicity in the national Nigerian press for the first General Meeting held in Abuja. The leaders of the nine other Changing Attitude groups in Nigeria have carefully protected themselves by maintaining a low profile.
Colin Coward and Stephen Coles met many of the leaders at the meeting in Togo in May 2007. A photograph of those present was posted on the CA web site with the faces of all but Davis Mac-Iyalla and the two English priests present pixellated to protect their identities. One of those is Stephen Wariebi.
The General Meeting held in November 2005 and the leaders' meeting in Togo both attracted international attention in the Anglican Communion. Reports were posted on the Changing Attitude web site and the events received attention in Abuja where the headquarters of the Church of Nigeria are located. Reports from contacts inside the Church office confirmed this.
Stephen's invisibility was compromised in 2007 when the CAN group in Port Harcourt developed a relationship with an orphanage as part of their group ministry and pastoral work. On Sunday 17 June 2007, 48 lesbians and gay men held a party for the children of the Orphanage Home, Borokiri, Port Harcourt, Rivers State. A report of the party was posted on the Changing Attitude web site on 19 June 2007 which included a picture of Stephen.
We posted the report and pictures of the Port Harcourt orphanage event on the web site and named people because we wanted to prove that lesbian and gay Christians in Nigeria are not only concerned with their own campaign but are actively demonstrating Christian witness to others.
Stephen was able to join Davis Mac-Iyalla and two other leaders of Changing Attitude Nigeria as part of our team at the Lambeth Conference in July/August. Although the other two leaders participated in public events in Canterbury, we have been careful to protect their identities since both have returned to continue their work in Nigeria.
Changing Attitude has tried to maintain a fine balance between protecting lesbian and gay group members in Nigeria and providing information to the public to demonstrate the reality of lesbian and gay activity and experience.
Davis Mac-Iyalla has been the public face for LGBT members of Changing Attitude Nigeria. Our inability to name individuals and publish pictures of Changing Attitude activity in Nigeria enables those opposed to us to claim that none of these things happen in reality. It is a difficult to raise the profile of LGBT people and protect them from attack at the same time.
Leaders and members of other Changing Attitude groups have had to go into hiding to avoid being threatened and attacked. A member of the group in Benin City was shot in his arm by members of a cult gang who were pursuing him because he was identified as gay.
The group leader in Benin City was threatened in many phone calls by members of a cult gang. He was attacked, his wallet and identity card stolen and was threatened with exposure as gay.
He went underground for safety until he was advised that it was safe to return home. Almost every member of the Benin City group reports stories of being attacked because they are gay.
In granting asylum because of their sexuality to Davis and Stephen, the UK Government accepts that Nigeria is now too dangerous as a country for any LGBT person who is actively and publicly visible. The recent public outcry against the Revd Jide Rowland Macaulay of the House of Rainbow MCC Church in Lagos, reinforces the UK Government policy. Jide was forced to return to the UK for his own safety.
Archbishop Peter Akinola said in an interview in the Nigerian Sunday Tribune published on 7 December 2008 that: "Again, we have never said that homosexuals are to be found only in England or America . They are to be found everywhere in the world. They are in America, they are in England, they are in Nigeria, Uganda, Arabia, they are in Kuwait, they are everywhere in the world."
This is very different from the stance previously maintained by Nigerian Primates and bishops, that homosexuality is not known in Nigeria but has somehow been imported from the west.
The Archbishop also claims, in accordance with his tradition, that: "Our culture abhors [homosexuality], the order of creation abhors it. The word of God says no to it and therefore we chose not to celebrate it. In our culture, you see two men say they are homosexuals how do you relate to them, we know it is an aberration and we have always said it is an aberration..."
It is the attitude of abhorrence, aberration and judgement expressed by the Archbishop that fuels prejudice against LGBT people in Nigeria when the law is already punitive and social and religious attitudes are hostile.
He said that: "… people who suffer from this problem can always come to the church for counselling, for prayers. I tell you this, many have been delivered from this problem in America, England. But if they are so shy and they cannot come out to say this is our problem then, what do we do. But we cannot accept them. So, that they are in Nigeria doesn't bother me. If any of them comes for help, we would help, but if they don't come for help, they are answerable to their God who created them."
The LGBT members of CAN do not believe that they can safely come out and reveal themselves to their priests, let alone their congregations. They fear that their own priest will not offer them counselling and prayers but will react negatively to them.
The problem they would bring to their priest is in any case not the problem of their homosexuality, but the problem the church has with homosexuality. They do not want to come to church for help to be changed or healed.
LGBT people know, as Archbishop Akinola does not or possibly cannot know as a heterosexual man, that we do not need healing from our innate, God-given sexual identity. We long for the church to learn "… what it is that the Lord requires of you: only to act justly, to love loyalty, to walk humbly with your God." Micah 6.8