The Archbishop of Yaoundé, Tonyè Bakot, recently described homosexuals as "corrupters of society". A view shared by some Cameroonians and criticized by others, who believe that the Church's role is not to divide but to unite.
"Archbishop Tonyè Bakot must stop excluding people," says Stéphane Koche, the vice-president of Association for the Defence of Homosexuals in Cameroon (ADHEFO).
Bakot's statement came during the mass of the Assumption Christian festival on 15 August. "Homosexuality is growing in our society and it was condemned by the Catholic Church," he said. According to him, homosexuals are "corrupters of society" just like paedophiles.
Apparently, Bakot wanted to celebrate women during his homily, and show that homosexuality had a bad impact on them.
"Homosexuality is an insult to family, an enemy to women and creation," he said. "We hear about debates on same-sex marriage. How is homosexuality promoting procreation and family values? If all men were married to other men, what would become of women?" he argued.
Serge Douomong, the secretary of the Affirmative Action Association, or ACT, which fights against HIV/AIDS and other health issues in Cameroon, disagrees. "If homosexuality was a threat to procreation, the human species would have been extinct a long time ago, because the practice has existed for ages," he says.
34-year-old businessman Idriss Mangoa says that he is a self-confessed homophobe but he still thinks women should not be used as a pretext to voice one's homophobia as the Archbishop did. "Is the role of women limited to procreation? Is a barren woman then less of a woman?" he asks.
Arguments used by the Archbishop are echoed among many young people. "Homosexuality is a danger to the family structure. Homosexuals want to adopt children but who do they think is going to make babies for them to adopt?" says Jacques Nsangou, a young student.
Olivier Ekoman, a medical student, has a more moderate view. "As a devout Catholic, I can only follow the position of the Church, which is against homosexuality. However, homosexuals can adopt children, as studies have shown that children raised by gay parents are psychologically as normal as children raised by heterosexual parents."
Not a first
Transvestites and transgenders also didn't escape Bakot's condemnation. He said in his homily that they are "a disgrace and a disrespectful criticism of God who chose to create us male or female."
It is not the first time Archbishop Bakot comes out against gays. On 25 December 2005, for example, he said "homosexuality was the cause of unemployment among the youth because young men who refused to have sexual relations with high-ranking government officials could not find jobs."
Nsangou agrees: "In our country, access to certain positions of responsibility requires that one belongs to certain circles in which homosexual practices are established as a rule. That is one of the reasons why I hate homosexuals."
He believes that "homosexuality does not have a place in our society. Some call for tolerance but I think we should not tolerate it at all. We can only tolerate homosexuality on condition that it is recognised as a disease." He believes homosexuals should be treated.
Douomong, from ACT, says that "such messages destroy all efforts by associations like ours." He argues that reasoning like this strengthens the frustration and stigmatisation of homosexuals. "It can lead to an increase in the HIV prevalence rate as gay men will not find the courage to come out. As a result, it will be difficult to sensitize or treat them."
Role of the Church
This debate on homosexuality is raising serious questions on the role of the Church itself in Cameroon.
"The Church's role is to promote harmony and peace," says Douomong. "Christ himself used to reach out to those considered to be bad. Even if homosexuality is evil as some believe, the Church should not be promoting rejection and division instead of unity."
ADHEFO's Vice-President, Koche: "God never said to love your fellow men except homosexuals. It's a pity that a clergyman preaches exclusion, stigmatisation instead of uniting the people. He should not use a segment of the population as scapegoats for society's problems."
Homosexuality is considered a crime in Cameroon. Same-sex relations are punished with six months to five years imprisonment and a fine between 20,000 and 200,000 CFA francs (30 and 300 Euros). The average monthly salary in Cameroon is around 28,000 CFA francs.