Catholic Bishops End Family Synod With Little To Say To Gays; World Congress of Families Has Plenty To Say, None of it Good; How Same-Sex Marriage Came to a Buddhist Temple in Japan; Global LGBT Recap

Intersex Awareness Day was observed around the world on October 26.

In what one advocate has called a “life-saving” move, the U.S. State Department has indicated that it will include same-sex partners in the definition of “spouse” when dealing with people seeking asylum.

Catholic Bishops Synod on the Family Ends With No Action on Gays

The Catholic Bishops’ contentious synod the family came to a close last weekend. After furious resistance from conservative bishops, gays were essentially left out of the gathering’s final report. In the words of Reuters’ Philip Pullella,

The outcome of the gathering…appeared to mark a victory for conservatives and a failure for reformers who had hoped for more inclusive language towards gays.

Wrote Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo in the New York Times,

The church doors opened just a crack for Catholics who divorced and remarried without receiving an annulment of their first marriages, and for those living together without being married. They remained firmly shut to same-sex marriage, even as the document said gay people should be treated with respect…

The next steps are now with Francis, who after three weeks of assembly meetings, backbiting and intrigue now has a clearer picture of the forces arrayed for and against change. Francis made a strong plea for inclusiveness in his final address to the assembly, known as a synod, which brought together about 270 bishops from around the world.

The synod, Francis said, “was about laying bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church’s teachings or good intention, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”

The bishops called on Francis to issue his own document on the family. He is expected to do so, and may even choose to make it an encyclical — a major teaching document — but it could take months or even a year before he weighs in.

According to David Gibson at Religion News Service:

Progressives said there was such fierce opposition on welcoming language to gays by some churchmen, especially from Africa, Eastern Europe, and from some of the nine American prelates here, that they decided not to press the issue and face defeat — or the prospect of a recommendation that would bar any future opening.

More from Gibson’s report:

A momentous and divided gathering of global bishops ended Saturday (Oct. 24) by endorsing ways that could lead to greater participation by divorced and remarried Catholics — a major source of friction here — while the 270 churchmen declined to take up the even more controversial issue of how and whether to be more welcoming to gays.

The final document was an obvious compromise intended to gain support from both reformers and hardliners and achieve as much consensus as possible.

The three-week meeting of churchmen from all five continents, called a synod, revealed serious theological, cultural and ideological fissures in the worldwide hierarchy.

Some cardinals and bishops blasted gay rights in harsh terms and other said any softening of the church’s practices on allowing remarried Catholics to take communion would be tantamount to heresy.

But by refusing to rule out future changes that would make the church more inclusive, the final product could be seen as a blow to traditionalists’ hopes to put an end to the often fierce arguments that have roiled the church since Pope Francis called for an open debate soon after his election in March 2013.

The often vague language of the concluding report also left the door open for Francis to take further action to provide greater pastoral flexibility to local bishops and priests, as church leaders expect him to do.

Francis himself seemed to signal his intentions as he delivered a powerful closing talk to the gathering on Saturday evening that denounced moral legalism in the church and declared that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit.”

Joshua McElwee at National Catholic Reporter reported on the pope’s closing homily, in which Francis “warned against a temptation to practice a ‘spirituality of illusion’ that ignores people’s struggles or sees things only as we wish them to be.”

The remarks follow strong words given by the pope at the end of the work of the gathering Saturday evening, when the pontiff renewed his continual emphasis of the boundless nature of divine mercy, saying: “The Church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy.”

At Al Jazeera, Debora Fougere talked to LGBT Catholics about the synod:

The pontiff called the synod to discuss “the vocation and mission of the family in the church and in the contemporary world.” And outside the Vatican walls, the very definition of family in the contemporary world has changed. Catholics get divorced and remarried. Catholic congregants and even priests are now openly gay.

But as the world’s Catholics read the bishops’ official account of the synod, gay Catholics were bound to be disappointed. While the document said they should be “treated with respect” and should not fall victim to “unjust discrimination,” it effectively shut the door on same-sex marriage.

In America many gay Catholics, gay priests and their supporters in the church are still hewing to Francis’ message of more tolerance and openness. They believe that the debate over the church’s attitude toward LGBT issues has only just begun and that the results of the synod are not going to derail it. Their lives and experiences reveal that in America there is a thriving culture of gay Catholics who openly embrace both their faith and their sexuality.

Fougere notes the rising influence of Africa’s Catholics:

One thing that is increasingly defining Catholicism’s future tackling of LGBT rights is the church’s changing demographics.

Because while Catholicism struggles to hold on to the faithful in its traditional strongholds like Europe, the U.S. and Latin America, the numbers are growing at a rapid pace in one part of the world known for its cultural hostility to gay rights: sub-Saharan Africa.

Since 1980, the number of Catholics in Africa has grown by 238 percent. Perhaps more important, 70 percent of them attend Sunday Mass regularly, compared with just 29 percent in the Americas. Some countries with the fastest growth — Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya — have or are considering laws that make homosexual acts punishable by long prison terms or, in some cases, execution.

But the numbers can’t be ignored, and African bishops are leading the charge against the progressives and reportedly to a bigger role in the synod. Longtime Vatican observer John Allen, who covered the synod for Crux, writes that progressives “met stiff resistance from several African bishops who no longer consider themselves junior partners in Catholicism Inc. This time, they’re ready for the boardroom.”

Fougere speaks with American LGBT Catholics who acknowledge that the synod’s final document offers little promise of change, but who still find “flickers of hope” in Pope Francis’s downplaying of dogma and focus on mercy.

World Congress of Families: Global Gathering of Religious Social Conservatives

The World Congress of Families met in Salt Lake City last week, the ninth of these global gatherings of social conservatives and the first held in the United States. Conference sponsors and participants included many American religious conservative groups along with their counterparts from around the world. Among those honored at the conference was Theresa Okafor of Nigeria, who repeatedly defended African countries with laws criminalizing homosexuality.

I covered the conference for People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch blog, where we will be posting additional coverage in the coming week. Among others covering the conference were BuzzFeed’s Lester Feder and Cole Parke for The Daily Beast.

Topics discussed at the WCF cover the range of interests of the global “pro-family movement,” including homosexuality, contraception and abortion, and sex education. Opposition to marriage equality in the name of the “natural family” was frequently grounded in claims that traditional male and female gender roles in family and society were ordained by God. Some speakers also took part on a more explicitly and intensely anti-gay event that took place on Monday, the day before WCF officially convened.

BuzzFeed’s Lester Feder wrote about efforts by conference organizers to soften their anti-gay image, which exposed divides within the movement about what kind of anti-gay rhetoric to use.

Not surprisingly, there was a significant Mormon presence at the conference, including an opening keynote rom Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS. Ballard praised this year’s “Utah compromise,” in which the church agreed to back the inclusion of LGBT people in some statewide nondiscrimination laws in return for broad religious exemptions. There were no speaking slots for the pro-LGBT Mormons Building Bridges, but the group organized members to have a significant presence at the microphones during Q&A sessions.

In addition to presentations on strengthening anti-gay and anti-abortion advocacy globally, the conference included training sessions on a range of topics, such as a session on messaging from Frank Schubert, the notorious mastermind of the gays-as-threats-to-children ads used to promote Prop 8 and other anti-gay initiatives in the U.S.

The conference also included an “emerging leaders” training track, which provided scholarships to about 260 young people from more than 40 countries and 25 states. A conference organizer estimated that they were part of a group of about 500 under-30 participants out of the more than 3300 who joined at least part of the four-day event.

Progressive religious leaders held an alternative gathering in advance of WCF.

Japan: How Same-Sex Marriage Came to Buddhist Temple

At Huffington Post, Rena Kure interviews Rev. Taka Zenryu Kawakami, deputy head priest at the Shunkoin Buddhist temple in Hanazono, Kyoto. Although Japan does not recognize same-sex marriages, couples from around the world visit Shunkoin for marriage ceremonies.

Kawakami was born into a family that has produced Shunkoin chief priests for generations. After graduating from the Hanazono School (which is affiliated with Rinzai Buddhism’s Myoshinji temple), he studied English at Rice University in Texas, and then enrolled at Arizona State University.

“One day I was having tea with a friend, and a person walked past who you could tell at a glance was gay. I made a discriminatory comment. My friend replied, ‘I’m gay, too. Is that the way you feel about me, Taka?’” Kawakami recounted.

“When he said that, I remembered being discriminated against as an Asian person when I traveled in the South,” he said. “Especially because I had been the victim of prejudice myself, I felt terrible shame, and I completely changed my position. As I changed, my friends began to open up to me about the fact that they were gay or lesbian.”

The temple began performing ceremonies for same-sex couples in 2010 after a request from a Spanish woman who had visited many times for meditation classes.

Kawakami looked over the sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism, and confirmed that such a wedding would not contradict scripture. He expected to be criticized for holding the ceremony, but was also sure that his willingness to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies at the temple would support the LGBT cause by paving the way for more acceptance in Japanese society.

“The reasons why LGBT people are not accepted are different in the West than in Japan,” Kawakami said. “In Japan, there is no religious pressure from groups like Christian conservatives. So you don’t see the same sort of strong opposition as in the West. On the other hand, in Japan, there is an underlying pressure to conform, a sense of ‘We are all the same; we are all heterosexual’ — and that makes it hard to live as an LGBT person.”

“I thought that if places such as my temple could show that we actively accept same-sex marriage, it would draw more attention to the problem,” he added.

Kawakami now lectures about the history of same-sex love in Japan.

“The missionary Luís Fróis recorded that in the Warring States period, daimyo [lords] had sexual relationships with their pages. Same-sex love is depicted in the shunga [erotic] art of the Edo period, and was accepted,” Kawakami said.

“This changed during [the Meiji period]. During the ‘Leave Asia, Join Europe’ phase, the definition of a ‘civilized country’ as a Protestant-based Western nation was blindly imported, and it came to be thought that gay love was a sin. If we look carefully at history, we can see that pre-Meiji Japan was ‘gay friendly,'” he added.

“We mustn’t act as if it’s all right to cast the LGBT community aside because they’re a minority group,” Kawakami said. “According to surveys, 7.6 percent of Japan’s population is LGBT.That means about seven percent of the people in Japan don’t have the option to get married. This cannot lead to happiness in the country.”

Finland: Continuing Religious Resistance to Same-Sex Marriage

On October 22, the Parliament “began working on legal changes “necessary to facilitate the same-sex marriage act becoming legal in 2017.”

Tensions ran high during the sit-down starting with Minister of Justice Jari Lindström bringing the task to the table reluctantly.

“I respect Parliament’s decision even though it does not match my own views. But it is Parliament’s decision and I respect it. As a minister it is my duty to table this law,” said Lindström, who voted against the same-sex marriage bill last autumn when the Finns Party was an opposition party…

Negative reactions to the marriage law and its associated changes came primarily from the Finns and Christian Democrat Parties.

Lindström’s party colleague, MP Mika Niikko spoke with feeling at the meeting and verbally chided all those present who were in favour of the same-sex marriage law, whether Finns Party or otherwise.

“I know you know that God has raised you up to this station for these trying times. Where is your fear of God?” Niikko said to the room, to which Greens MP Ozan Yanar responded by saying Niikko sounded like an Islamist extremist.

Lutheran archbishop Kari Mäkinen also got his share of Finns Party vitriol for openly supporting LGBT rights. Niikko labelled the archbishop a “paid shepherd”, religious lingo meaning that in his view Mäkinen does not care about his flock.

Fellow Finns Party member Pentti Oinonen joined Niikko: “Meanwhile the poor, the sick and the put-upon were forgotten. Will the archbishop take the blame for these souls?” he intoned.

Christian Democrat Peter Östman voiced his concern that archbishop Mäkinen is running the Lutheran church into an administrative and doctrinal crisis, as the Evangelical Lutheran handbook only recognises marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Israel: LGBTs Ask High Court to Permit Civil Marriages for Same-Sex Couples

The country’s LGBT associate as filed a petition asking the High Court to order the recognition of marriage by same-sex couples. The Times of Israel explains that despite overwhelming public support for marriage equality – 70 percent in a 2013 poll by Haaretz – legislation has not been able to survive the country’s “contentious parliamentary politics.”

Israeli marriages are performed under laws inherited from Ottoman times that grant each Israeli religious community’s state-recognized leadership sole jurisdiction over marriage. These Ottoman religious communal structures, called millets, were continued by the British mandate. After Israel’s 1948 independence, Israel too maintained the system, citing among other considerations its obligations to the country’s minorities.

As a consequence, marriages in Israel are performed only through religious institutions. Jewish couples must marry through the Chief Rabbinate, and Catholics, Druze and Muslims all marry through their own state-sanctioned and publicly funded religious legal systems.

In that light, while same-sex marriage is not actually illegal in Israel, there simply isn’t any institution empowered to perform such marriages.

According to the LGBT association, the High Court has the authority to approve marriages in the civil courts if the rabbinical court does not recognize them.

Norway: State Churches Will Perform Same-Sex Weddings

The Church of Norway General Synod endorsed the creation of liturgies for marriage of same-sex couples; all churches in Norway will offer marriage services. Priests and other staff will have the right to refuse to participate in same-sex couples’ wedding ceremonies. Last year Prime Minister Erna Solberg supported such a move.

Latin America: Report on LGBT Organizing, Book on Marriage Equality Movements

The National Democratic Institute this week published a report on the gathering of LGBTI groups that met in Honduras in early October.

Organized by [Wilson] Castañeda’s Colombia-based organization Caribe Afirmativo, the Gay & Lesbian Victory InstituteHivos International and Honduran LGBTI group Somos CDC, Tegucigalpa was more than just a gathering, it was a call to action. Participants came from 22 different countries with varying degrees of legal and social LGBTI inclusion — from Barbados where same-sex relations is punishable by life imprisonment to Argentina where same-sex marriage and right to adoption have been legal for several years. They spoke from a range of local contexts that impact LGBTI political participation….

Some of the topics explored were building alliances with faith leaders, forming more inclusive municipal governments, understanding the unique indigenous and Afro-descendent LGBTI experience and developing strategies for advancing gender identity legislation for transgender citizens.

Catching up on earlier news, in May this year Cambridge University Press published “The Politics of Gay Marriage in Latin America” by Jordi Díez of the University of Guelph. From the publisher’s description:

Addressing one of the defining social issues of our time, The Politics of Gay Marriage in Latin America explores how and why Latin America, a culturally Catholic and historically conservative region, has become a leader among nations of the Global South, and even the Global North, in the passage of gay marriage legislation. In the first comparative study of its kind, Jordi Díez explains cross-national variation in the enactment of gay marriage in three countries: Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. Based on extensive interviews in the three countries, Díez argues that three main key factors explain variation in policy outcomes across these cases: the strength of social movement networks forged by activists in favor of gay marriage; the access to policy making afforded by particular national political institutions; and the resonance of the frames used to demand the expansion of marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Europe: Dangers for LGBT refugees from fellow asylum-seekers

Gay asylum-seekers from Syria who have made it more welcoming countries in Europe face threats from fellow asylum seekers, reported Anthony Faiola in the Washington Post last weekend.

Gays who face official persecution in nations such as Iran and Uganda have been fleeing to Europe for years. But experts estimate that a record number of gays and lesbians seeking asylum, as many as 50,000, will arrive this year in Germany, the European nation accepting the largest number of refugees. Rather than leaving their home countries specifically because of anti-gay persecution, many are fleeing violence and war in nations such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Once in Europe, gays and lesbians are herded along with other asylum seekers into cramped shelters and camps, where a number of them are exposed to serious harassment.

There are no official figures. But the Lesbian and Gay Federation of Berlin and Brandenburg, for instance, says it is receiving three to six cases a week in which gay asylum seekers have been victims of physical abuse, including sexual assault. Earlier this month, a 21-year-old gay Arab asylum seeker in Berlin was hospitalized after he was insulted and assaulted at the refugee center where he was staying. In the city of Dresden, an eastern German metropolis of 525,000, at least seven gay asylum seekers have been removed from shelters this year for their own safety.

Sensing a growing threat, officials in Berlin are seeking to open the city’s first refugee center exclusively for gays and lesbians. The Berlin gay federation, meanwhile, has rolled out a new campaign called Love Deserves Respect, putting up posters inside refu­gee centers showing three couples kissing — a man and a woman, two women and two men.

“Just like everyone else, with the refugees, there are good ones and bad ones, and there are those who are carrying homophobic attitudes from their homelands,” said Jouanna Hassoun, head of the Berlin gay federation’s migrant program. “Those attitudes won’t be abandoned immediately.”

The incidents are fast becoming political lightning rods, playing into the broader debate in Germany over questions of how to integrate hundreds of thousands of new refugees and whether to start sending more of them back.

The majority of the newcomers are coming from nations in the Middle East and Africa with sharply different laws and social norms from Germany regarding, for example, gays and women. Even some on Germany’s political right — rarely seen as champions of gay rights — have seized on gay bashing as further evidence of the dangers of accepting so many refugees, many of whom may never fully embrace modern German values.

Ireland: Marriage Equality Signed into Law

Ireland’s marriage equality legislation was signed into law on Thursday. From the Irish Times:

The Presidential Commission – which is made up of the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad – on Thursday signed the Marriage Bill 2015 in the absence of President Michael D Higgins, who is on an official visit to the US.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald must now issue a commencement order which will allow same-sex couples to start getting married.

Ms Fitzgerald last week said the first same-sex marriages will take place by mid-November after legislation paving the way for such unions passed all stages in the Oireachtas.

Indonesia: More on new Sharia Law on Aceh Province

We reported last week that a new Sharia law going into effect in Indonesia’s Aceh province included caning as a sentence for homosexuality. Reuters has since reported with more details about the new law.

Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province has enacted a strict Islamic criminal code, local government officials said late on Friday, criminalizing adultery, homosexuality, and public displays of affection outside of a legally recognized relationship.

Aceh is the only province in the Muslim-dominated country to adhere to sharia, Islamic law, which puts it at odds with other provinces where the vast majority of the population practices a moderate form of the religion.

“Non-Muslims can choose whether to be tried under sharia law or the regular Indonesian criminal code,” said Syahrizal Abbas, head of the sharia legal department in the provincial government.

The new law also criminalizes rape and sexual harassment. Those found guilty could face 40 lashes or more, according to a copy of the legislation seen by Reuters.

Rights groups warned the new law could criminalize consensual sex and create hurdles to reporting rape.

“To punish anyone who has had consensual sex with up to 100 lashes is despicable,” Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s South East Asia campaigns Director, said in a statement.

“This is a flagrant violation of human rights and must be repealed immediately.”

Kenya: Report on outreach to anti-gay religious leader

Anonymous reports on an effort by Kenyan LGBT activists to befriend an anti-gay religious leader via a series of conversations centered initially on the rights of marginalized people to access health care.

Asia: Regional LGBT conference in Taipei

The ILGA-Asia regional conference drew 300 activists from more than 30 countries to Taipei last week. Human Rights Campaign portrayed Asia as the “next-frontier” for marriage equality. The conference was followed on Saturday by Asia’s biggest gay pride parade.

This year’s march coincides with several events held in Taipei, including a queer film festival and a regional LGBT conference.

“Taiwan certainly is one of the more progressive in Asia,” said Ashley Wu, co-chair of this year’s conference which attracted about 400 activists from countries including China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Nepal.

“But there is still strong opposing voices such as Christian groups. Their numbers aren’t big but their political influence is significant,” Wu said.

While marriage is not yet an option, some are encouraged by recent developments in gay rights.

Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan earlier this year became the first city to allow same-sex partners to be listed in household registration records.

Italy: Court Rules Against Mayors Recognizing Gay Couples’ Marriages

The country’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, this week backed Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, ruling that several local mayors who registered marriages contracted in other countries had broken the law.