ONCE a fortnight, 50 or so Nigerians furtively log on for an online Bible study class. “This is the only way we can worship because of the stigma,” says one of them. The reason for the secrecy is that the participants, ranging from students to married men, are gay. To go to a mainstream church in Nigeria would risk beatings or even a forced exorcism. So hundreds are turning to House of Rainbow, Nigeria’s only gay-friendly church, which is flourishing online after almost meeting a violent end two years ago.
Many Nigerians strongly disapprove of homosexuality. The dominant role of religion is widely seen as the root of the country’s homophobic culture. Punishing gays is one of the few common themes that politicians can promote with equal zest in the mainly Christian south and the largely Muslim north. Under federal law sodomy is punishable by a 14-year jail sentence. An even more stringent bill to ban gay-rights groups and homosexual displays of affection is also under consideration.
It is a similar story in many other parts of Africa. Uganda, influenced by evangelical Christianity, has provoked an international outcry over a still harsher bill that advocates the death penalty in certain cases of gay sex, for instance when one partner is HIV-positive. Barack Obama recently called the bill “odious”. In Malawi two men have gone on trial for gross indecency after holding a “traditional engagement ceremony”. The judge refused bail on the grounds that their release might provoke mob violence.
The founder of House of Rainbow, Rowland Jide Macaulay, a gay Nigerian pastor, knows all about anti-gay intimidation. Two years after he set up his church in Lagos in 2006, the project was brought to a halt. Members of his congregation had been beaten and sometimes raped as they left Sunday services in order—said their assailants—to “correct their sexuality”. After receiving death threats Mr Macaulay fled to Britain, from where he now preaches via YouTube.
Undaunted, he is now seeking funds in the West. He wants to start hairdressing and fashion courses to complement Bible study. The exclusion of gays from Nigeria’s mainstream churches can limit their educational chances. Mosques and churches often perform the duties of a state that has all but collapsed in many parts of the country. Muslim movements such as Izala build schools in the north, while Pentecostal groups have set up universities in the south. As Anthony, a 27-year-old bisexual living in Lagos, says: “In Nigeria the church is not just about a spiritual lift...they run our [social] services. If they say ‘We don’t want you’, where do you go?”