by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
An international conference on AIDS in Africa, which began on December 6, sparked intense debate even before it started.
The 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections convened in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, with more than 200 activists, experts, and U.N. and government officials participating.
On November 29, however, Ethiopian government officials and religious leaders held a pre-conference summit to determine what to do about the LGBT rights activists who were expected to gather at the conference.
According to the Global Voices website, local religious leaders wanted the government to ban the meeting.
Global Voices is a collective project of more than 500 bloggers and translators who publish online reports from around the world, 'with emphasis on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international mainstream media,' their website says.
Ethiopia was one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remains the religion of almost two-thirds of the population. Most of the rest are Muslim.
According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 97% of Ethiopian residents found same-sex relations unacceptable - the second-highest percentage among the 44 countries surveyed, exceeded only by Mali at 98%.
Same-sex sexual relations are treated as sexual assaults in Ethiopian law, and can bring a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
On the other hand, HIV infections have reached epidemic proportions among some demographics in Ethiopian's population - especially in urban areas, among police and military members and the prostitutes they hire - so the aims of the international AIDS conference are welcome to the government.
According to Global Voices, the conference and the opposition of local religious authorities also sparked a lively debate on Facebook.
Some individuals called for rational debate about LGBT rights.
'Sooner or later we need to have a civilized public debate about the issue,' one poster, identified as 'Hallelujah,' wrote.
'We shouldn't hate or discriminate, but rather be bold, articulate and critical enough to express our disapproval of the practice of Homosexuality from a spiritual, moral, social, health and nature and survival perspectives.'
Hallelujah's message touched off an interesting comment thread.
'We need to address it and try to be compassionate about it as well,' Lady Kidane wrote.
'We have created God in our image and whatever we don't like, and we don't understand, and we judge, we say God doesn't like it either, but God should be, in my opinion, beyond all this small stuff of who is sleeping with whom. We all need to find what makes us happy and be grateful for it.'
'How boring would it be if the whole world be the same. It takes all kinds of people to fill up the world,' she added.
'As to me, I don't consider homosexuality as a problem by itself. It is preference of people,' Bisrat Teshome wrote. 'People are rational and have the right and full knowledge to choose what is good for themselves (of course under the umbrella of the legal system of the country). These types of emotional and discriminatory reactions from religions are unacceptable.'
Osman Mohammedsiraj said that the debate should be on how to protect Ethiopians from 'the spread of the epidemic.'
'Gay and Lesbian rights are among issues that are not worth discussing in Ethiopia,' he wrote, 'since it is forgone conclusion that everyone across all religious affiliation disapproves them. But the discussion should rather be how to protect our people from spread of the epidemic.'
Not all those who added comments were open to LGBT rights, however. One message accused conference organizers of trying 'to influence the Ethiopia government to make a supportive law to accept this extremely bad practice which leads to corrupt families and the country.'
'To do this, they are trying spend a lot of money and plead support of the international organizations,' the anonymous poster said.
'I am thanking God for those of us who still believe it is an utterly unnatural act,' Nuhamin Getachew wrote. 'Also, I CAN NOT believe I am reading approvals for it from ETHIOPIANS?? Guys please, let us keep the dignified country our proud forefathers handed to us and not confuse civilization and plain immorality!!'
'I think we are missing the ONLY point here&.' Markos replied. 'Since when people treated so awfully like this for THINGS they practice on themselves?'
According to Global Voices, more than 90% of internet users in Ethiopia have access to Facebook.
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