Church=State in Putin’s Orthodox Empire?; Evangelical-Orthodox Anti-Gay Alliance; Malaysian Court Protects Transwomen; Catholicism (Still) Declining in Latin America; Global LGBT Recap

A new study by the Williams Institute at UCLA law school and NORC at the University of Chicago released last Friday found that residents in ninety percent of 52 surveyed countries have become more accepting of homosexuality over the past 20 years.  From a Daily Beast analysis of the report and another, “The Relationship between LGBT Inclusion and Economic Development: An Analysis of Emerging Economies,” produced by the Williams Institute in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development:

What factors correlate with acceptance of sexual diversity? Higher per capita income, longer histories of democratic stability, legal status, and religion. Buddhist or Jewish dominant countries are more accepting than Christian or Muslim dominant ones.

What factors don’t correlate? A country’s overall educational level (though an individual’s does), type of Christianity (Catholic v. Protestant v. Orthodox), or specific cultural traits….

And yes, religion matters, too. In 93 percent of countries, those who attend religious services less than once a year are 23 percent more supportive of LGBT equality than those who attend services weekly.

But economic development seems to matter most. According to Andrew Park and Andrew Flores of the Williams Institute, “Residents of countries whose economies that are in the top quartile are on average twelve times more likely to be supportive of homosexuality than residents of countries who economies are in the bottom quartile.”

…But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Intuition would suggest that economic development is the cause, and pro-gay policies are the effect. The more affluent a society, the more educated, the more democratic, the more networked, and so on.

But the [Williams/USAID] report also suggests that anti-gay policies may harm economic development. The discrimination against, marginalization of, and criminalization of LGBT people removes them from the job market, among other things. “This research delineates the macro- and micro-level costs of not having an LGBT-inclusive workforce,” said Stephen O’Connell, USAID’s chief economist.

Malaysia: Islamic Councils Assertive, but Court Overturns Anti-Trans Prosecutions

Last Friday Malaysia’s Putrajaya Court of Appeal ruled that it is unconstitutional for the state of Negeri Sembilan to criminalize transgender people for cross-dressing. The case was brought by three transwomen who were arrested by Islamic religious police in 2010 for “wearing women’s clothes, using makeup and behaving like women.” More from IGLHRC:

In the ruling, Judge Yunus writes Section 66 “deprives the appellants of their right to live with dignity,” and “prohibits” transgender people from “moving in public places to reach their respective places of work.” Further, he notes that trans people “could not dress in public in the way that is natural to them,” that “they will commit the crime of offending section 66 the very moment they leave their homes” and be subject to “arrest, detention and prosecution” which is “degrading, oppressive and inhuman….”

State legislatures in Malaysia are empowered to legislate on matters relating to Islam in their jurisdictions. In the majority of Malaysia’s 13 states and the capital, same-sex relations are punishable under sharia law. Convictions carry prison sentences from six months to three years, fines of up to $1,500 and beatings with a cane. This is also true for non-conforming gender expression (such as cross-dressing). Trans individuals who are convicted are sometimes forced to attend Islamic religious classes and promise to stop being trans.

The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller has more:

Although lawyers described Friday’s decision as a landmark judgment, it was also circumscribed, according to Fahri Azzat, a lawyer representing the three hairdressers who brought the case.

The judgment is subject to appeal and is only applicable in Negeri Sembilan. Transgender bans in other Malaysian states remain intact, Mr. Fahri said.

The lead judge, Mohamed Hishamudin Mohamed Yunus, made it clear that the court was not ruling on homosexuality, which is illegal in Malaysia, and that transgender people had a disorder.

“The present case has nothing to do with homosexuality,” he was quoted as saying in the Malaysian news media.

Fuller writes that decades of conservative Islamic politics have left transgender people ostracized in spite of acceptance they have been traditionally accorded in the culture of Malaysia’s dominant Malay ethnic group.

Friday’s decision comes at a time when the Islamic authorities have become increasingly assertive in seeking to govern the behavior of Malaysian Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the population.

Muslims are subject to an increasingly confusing and sometimes overlapping tangle of Islamic and civil laws.

Lawyers accuse Islamic government councils of stretching the boundaries of their authority.

In July, the official religious council in wealthy and populous Selangor State issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian group that advocates women’s rights.

The fatwa declared Sisters in Islam “deviant” and also denounced “any individual, organization or institution that upholds the belief of liberalism or pluralism in religion.”

The fatwa did not define liberalism or pluralism, but called on the authorities to ban and seize books that promote the ideas and to “censor and block any social website contrary to Islamic teachings.”

Rosli Dahlan, a Malaysian lawyer who has represented clients challenging the power of the religious authorities, said the scope of the fatwa was unprecedented.

“This is an attempt by religious authorities to extend their tentacles into areas where they don’t belong,” Mr. Rosli said. “This seems to be a return to the Spanish Inquisition.”

Sisters in Islam is challenging the fatwa in court.

Orthodox Church: Putin’s Orthodox Empire, and a New Orthodox-Evangelical Anti-Gay Alliance?

As we’ve reported, Russia’s strongman president Vladimir Putin has closely allied himself with the Russian Orthodox church and in return has received church backing for his nationalist, anti-gay, and “traditional values” platform. This week Slate’s Joshua Keating asks, “Is Vladimir Putin trying to build a new Orthodox empire?”

In many ways, it’s the best of times for the Russian Orthodox Church. The vast majority of Russians now identify as Orthodox—a stark change from the immediate post-Soviet period. Recent years have seen a flurry of church construction throughout the country. And perhaps most important of all, there’s a committed believer—Vladimir Putin—in the Kremlin, a man who surrounds himself with other influential people of faith and regularly invokes God in his public statements. Yet all is not as rosy for the Orthodox Church as it appears on the surface. The blurring of the line between church and state in Russia, what critics call an attempt to turn religion into a branch of the government, has alienated many former believers. The recent crisis in Ukraine has also exposed a potentially dangerous split in the millennium-old institution.

Keating writes that during Communism, “treatment of the church ranged from brutal oppression (the imprisonment or execution of priests and the destruction of churches) to co-optation (many church leaders in the late Soviet period were KGB plants).” But even, so, he writes, “for Orthodox intellectuals, the church served as a safe haven.” That is no longer the case. Keating writes about Dmitry Sverdlov, a “small-town Orthodox priest-turned-tech entrepreneur” who “had been forced out of the church to which he had devoted his life.”

“Prior to the election of 2012 and the Pussy Riot case, there was no huge pressure on alternative groups within the church. After the presidential election and that case, things changed,” he says.

Until last year, Sverdlov was a parish priest in Pavlovskoe, a Moscow suburb. But it wasn’t his activities with his congregation that got Sverdlov into trouble—it was his sideline as a journalist for online religious publications. While most of his articles were uncontroversial descriptions of church life, a few were more overtly political, including stories about fraud during Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections.

The breaking point came in 2012 after members of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot carried out their infamous performance of “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. While he didn’t condone its actions, Sverdlov wrote that church authorities should show “forgiveness” to the group. In January 2013 he was suspended from the priesthood for five years. Officially, the suspension was for traveling outside his diocese without permission, and church authorities denied that it had anything to do with his writing, but even Russia’s state-sponsored media didn’t seem to buy that flimsy reasoning.

Keating also speaks with Vsevolod Chaplin, the head of church-state relations in Russia, who is the Russian Orthodox Church’s chief spokesman and a culture warrior who has defended the country’s anti-gay laws as “merely an effort to prevent the efforts of gay groups to ‘persuade this society by manipulation or dishonest political campaigning.’”

Chaplin sees nothing wrong with the church and state speaking together with one voice.

“The idea of an inevitable conflict between the church and the state is a peculiarity of Western civilization,” he says. “For the Orthodox civilization and way of life, as well as Islamic civilization, the very idea of the conflict between the religious community and power is something alien.”

I asked Chaplin if Orthodox civilization, as he conceives it, is compatible with democracy. “The Western type of democracy is not universal, it should be confronted, it should be argued, it should be replaced in most of the societies that don’t see it as something comfortable,” he replies. “The Western political system is just one of many systems that exist and will exist in the world.”

Also on the Orthodox front, journalist Terry Mattingly writes this week about the November 7 photo op meeting between Rev. Billy Graham and Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.  He reports that the visit “was linked to a Hilarion address to a Charlotte gathering of Protestant and Orthodox leaders, organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.”

After generations of work with organizations such as the Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches, the archbishop said many Orthodox leaders now realize that — on issues of sex, marriage, family life and moral theology — some of their ecumenical partners will be found in evangelical pulpits and pews.

“In today’s pluralistic world, the processes of liberalization have swept over some Christian communities. Many churches have diverted from biblical teaching … even if this attitude is not endorsed by the majority of these communities’ members,” said Hilarion, who is the Moscow Patriarchate’s chief ecumenical officer.

The most pressing current issue is the blessing of same-sex unions, which clashes with centuries of Christian tradition on marriage. The Orthodox cannot compromise on this point of doctrine, he stressed.

“The church has always been called to proclaim the truth of Christ and condemn sin, even in defiance of the demands of the society and ‘the powers that be.’ … How little does this resemble the discourse of today’s liberal Christians who seek to adapt the church to the standards of this world, to make it tolerant, not towards people, not towards sinners, but towards sin.”

Mattingly also writes about a controversy raging online in in the U.S. Orthodox community:

Ironically, Hilarion’s visit to the United States took place during a semi-public debate about this very issue, on a youth-ministry website operated by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which has Russian roots. At the center of the storm was an essay entitled “Never Changing Gospel; Ever Changing Culture” by Father Robert Arida. He serves as pastor of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Boston, which has been praised on the Facebook page of the “Pro-Gay Orthodox Christians” network.

“While the past cannot be ignored, it also cannot be the only point of reference for the Orthodox Christian,” wrote Arida. If church leaders do not acknowledge “that the Holy Spirit continues to work here, now and in the future, the past will easily be transformed into an oppressive tyrant.”

It’s especially important, he stressed, for Orthodox leaders not to be swayed by the views of converts to Orthodoxy, particularly evangelical Protestants.

“If the church is to engage culture, if it is to contribute to the culture and if it is to synthesize what is good, true and beautiful coming from the culture to further the Gospel, then it will have to expose and ultimately expel the ‘new and alien spirits’ that have weakened its authentic voice,” argued Arida. “Among these spirits are Biblical fundamentalism and the inability to critique and build upon the writings and vision” of the theologians and “fathers” of early Christianity.

Arida’s essay sparked fierce debate. Among the critics was the Brotherhood of the Orthodox Clergy Association of Houston, Texas, which delivered a “stinging rebuke”:

We find it unacceptable for Orthodox Clergy, who have been given the charge to instruct and guide the laity, to suggest that the moral Tradition of the Orthodox Church needs to change with the times or with the prevalent culture….We are all the more concerned that members of Fr. Robert Arida’s parish who identify themselves as homosexuals, report that though they make no secret of their ongoing homosexual relationships, they are freely communed…

Fr. Robert Arida’s recent and past statements on the issue of homosexuality are a scandal to the faithful. They also present those who are sincerely struggling against homosexual temptations with additional temptations, and misdirection. As a pan Orthodox organization, we are also concerned that such blatant disregard for the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church present further obstacles to Orthodox unity in America. We can only unite around a common fidelity to the authentic faith and piety of our Tradition. If we are not united in that, then authentic unity is impossible.

Mattingly says the Arida essay and comments on it were taken down by Metropolitan Tikhon Mollard.

Author Rod Dreher, commenting on the controversy, suggested the emergence of an Orthodox-Evangelical alliance. Here’s how he concludes:

I know that some of the Orthodox with whom I e-mail have been watching Rome under Pope Francis, and, fair or not, are concerned that it is caving to modernity on sexual issues. Having seen so many Mainline Protestant churches yield to liberalism, and then begin falling apart, is part of the reason for grave concern by these Orthodox priests and laity. The point is, the battle lines are not only between the Christian churches, but within them.

We live in interesting times.

Latin America: Pew Confirms Decline in Catholicism, Rise of Socially Conservative Evangelicals

The Pew Forum released a study this week documenting the continuing decline of Catholicism in Latin America, which is home to nearly 40% of the world’s Catholics. From the Wall Street Journal’s coverage by Loretta Chao:

Although the vast majority of respondents were raised Catholic, the percentage identifying as Catholic in the region decreased to 69% this year from 72% in 2010. In comparison, Pew estimates 94% of Latin Americans identified themselves as Catholics in 1950.

The decline comes despite the 2013 selection of Argentine-born Pope Francis , who has proved enormously popular with Catholics world-wide. Many had hoped a Latin American leader atop the church would stem the slide in the region, which is still home to more than 425 million Catholics.

“Catholics love Pope Francis,” said Neha Sahgal, a senior researcher at Pew. But “there’s currently no evidence that former Catholics are particularly enamored, or will come back to the Catholic Church. They seem to have made a pretty clean break.”

In general, respondents who said they had converted to Protestantism from Catholicism said they did so before the age of 25 and weren’t going to Mass frequently at the time. Most said they desired a more “personal experience with God,” and tended to hold conservative social views on issues such as contraception, same-sex marriage and divorce.

Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the WSJ he predicts that Brazil, which is 61% Catholic and the world’s biggest Catholic country, will no longer be majority Catholic by 2030 or earlier. “Nicaragua and Uruguay are already there and others are on the way,” he said.

Latin America’s embrace of Protestant churches, particularly the more conservative Pentecostal churches, reflects a polarization in attitudes in some countries in the region on social issues.

In Brazil, where Protestants now account for more than a quarter of the population, Catholics were twice as likely as Protestants to favor the legalization of gay marriage, according to Pew. The issue became a point of controversy in this year’s presidential election when Brazilian Socialist Party candidate Marina Silva, an evangelical Christian, removed support for gay marriage from her party’s platform following criticism from prominent Protestant leaders.

United Kingdom: Young, Gay, British and Muslim; New Queering Islam Blog

Layla Haidrani writes this week for Vice about the experience of young gay Muslims in the United Kingdom.

Most of the 11 self-identifying LGBTQ Muslims I interviewed for this piece are like Maryam: confident that they are able to reconcile their faith and sexuality and increasingly opting to live their lives openly in a community where it is assumed that religion and homosexuality cannot co-exist….

But while it may seem that coming out and living your life openly is the biggest hurdle to overcome for British Muslims, Claire, a 28-year-old Birmingham-based Muslim convert, says it’s only the beginning of the struggle. “As an LGBT Muslim, I face discrimination in the gay community. They say I cannot be gay and Muslim but I can. No one can judge you for who you are – you decide that.”

Claire also observes this hostility within the Muslim community. Recently engaged to her partner, she says she does not attend the mosque as she is constantly told by male worshipers that they are “better for her” than her partner. “What we want as LGBT Muslims and women is to be treated like humans,” she says. “We want to have the same rights to go to the mosque to pray and learn and to be a part of the Muslim community.”

Also this week, Alberto Fernández Carbajal launched a new blog called Queering Islam, part of a larger project called Queer Diasporas: Islam, Homosexuality and a Micropolitics of Dissent, which is based at the University of Leicester.

My attention to the experience of queer Muslims is highly sensitive to the ideological scapegoating Muslims have been the object of over the last decade, as well as to the continued and strategic pitting against each other of two seemingly separate ‘civilisations’ which, in reality, are far more interdependent than it would seem. I’m also particularly interested in the experiences of these sexually dissident Muslims because they not only have to deal with either the explicit or latent Islamophobia of Western societies, but they are also ‘Othered’ in terms of their sexualities, and find themselves at a complex cultural and political crossroads….

Saudi Arabia: Man Jailed for ‘Immoral Acts’ 

A Saudi Arabian man in his 30s was sentenced to three years in jail for engaging in “immoral acts.” According to news reports, he was arrested by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice after chatting and posting naked pictures of himself on social media. According to Gulf News, “Lawmakers, wary of the growing number of gays in the country, have been pushing for a crackdown, including the adoption of tougher immigration measures against expatriate homosexuals and their prompt deportation.”

Egypt: ‘The Plight of Homosexuals in Egypt’

We reported last week on the prison sentences given to eight men arrested after a video of an unofficial same-sex wedding went viral. This week journalist Rachel Avraham writes about “the plight of homosexuals in Egypt.”

While homosexuality is not technically illegal in Egypt, homosexuals who made their identity known in public have faced legal difficulties in practice. In the past, homosexuals have been jailed for “scorning religion” and engaging in “sexual practices contrary to Islam.” According to the Al Jazeera report, the Egyptian prosecution prosecuted this group of eight Egyptian men for publishing images that “violate public decency.”

According to the MEMRI website, Egyptian TV host Tamer Amin explained the official Egyptian position on homosexuality: “We are all sinners. We all make mistakes and commit sins. However, the best among sinners are those who repent, and ultimately, we will all face our Lord. The issue is not whether I make a mistake. The catastrophe is when someone boasts in public about his mistakes, his depravity, his obscenity, or the sin that he commits. This is what I am concerned about….”

“The homosexuals were sentenced to three years in prison and three additional years on probation. This sentence is the epitome of justice,” Amin declared. “They were sentenced to three years imprisonment and once they are released, the government will keep tabs on them for another three years, in order to monitor their behavior. If they do it again – we will do this again. If they resume this behavior, they will face interrogation and prosecution. If they learn their lesson and are deterred now, that will be the end of it. Some believe that liberties mean the freedom to do whatever you want. It is time to correct this notion. People should learn that freedom is constrained. There is no such thing as absolute freedom. The state and the law had to intervene in order to create deterrence: Whoever steps out of line will be punished.”

Uganda: New Anti-Gay Legislation in the Works

Anti-gay politicians in Uganda have drafted new legislation to replace the notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was overruled on procedural grounds. The new bill is called the Prohibition of Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Bill of 2014. The new law reportedly goes even further than the Anti-Homosexuality Act by making it a crime to fund an LGBT advocacy organization. The new draft could lead to prison sentences of seven years for “promoting” homosexuality, according to the Guardian, a provision that could be used to target media, social media, and human rights groups.

Brazil: Legislator Says Drought God’s Punishment for Pride Parade

Pastor Sargento Isidório, a legislator in the Brazilian state of Bahia who describes himself as an “ex-homosexual, ex-junkie and ex-thug,” is blaming the area’s drought on the Gay Pride Parade:

“When the skies close up and there is no rain, because the people have sinned against you— here I’m talking about the big Gay Pride Parade that takes place in São Paulo. The largest Gay Parade in the world is there (…). It’s the first sign of the spilling of the chalice of God’s wrath due to homosexuality in our Brazil,” says Isidório….

The legislator, who was the second most voted-for in this year’s elections and intends to be president of the Bahia Legislative Assembly in 2015, asks those who are not gay (and “non-sinners” according to him) to pray for the sin of homosexuality to be forgiven so that rain will at last fill São Paulo’s reservoirs.

Italy: Cardinal Slams Civil Unions and Same-Sex Marriage

The head of the Italian Bishops Conference told a gathering of bishops on Monday that gay marriage is a “Trojan horse” and that civil unions “confuse people” and “undermine” family life, reports the Telegraph. “It is irresponsible to weaken the family by creating new forms,” said Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, The Telegraph’s Nick Squires says the remarks were interpreted as criticism of some Italian Mayors who, as we have reported, have begun registering same-sex couples married in other countries.

Australia: Third State Recognizes Same Sex Couples

This week, New South Wales became the third Australian state, after Queensland and Tanmania, to recognize same-sex couples who have been legally married in other countries. Aaron Day at Pink News reports that a marriage equality bill in New South Wales failed last year on a 19-21 vote.

Anthony Fisher, recently installed as Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, said he has a “consciousness” of “the struggles of people with same-sex attraction,” saying, “Our concern should be there to help them rather than to be adding to their problems…”

Bangladesh: Hijras Celebrate Third Gender Court Ruling 

On Monday, more than a thousand transgender hijras led the first-ever Pride parade in Bangladesh, reports Aaron Day for Pink News, who writes, “Hijra, often subsumed under the trans umbrella in the West, is a South Asian feminine gender identity. It is sometimes – but not always – adopted by intersex people.” The celebration in Dhaka marked one year since the government had recognized hijras as a third gender. Notes Day, “In September last year, gay rights groups criticised the government in Bangladesh for refusing to decriminalise same-sex relationships, despite recommendations by the United Nations to do so.

Hong Kong: Pro-Democracy Protesters Join Pride Parade

Hong Kong’s gay pride parade last weekend was joined by members of the pro-democracy Occupy movement, according to the South China Morning Post.

Federation of Students leaders Alex Chow Yong-kang and Lester Shum, two key figures in the Occupy protests, took part and backed the call for equal rights for gays. “Regardless of whether you are gay, bisexual or transgender, we all have the moral responsibility to speak out. Stand up to change the world. Confront unreasonable pride, prejudice, cruelty and indifference,” Chow, the federation’s secretary general, told the crowd. Organisers said 8,900 took part, up from their estimate of 5,200 last year. Police said 4,700 people attended at the peak of the march, compared with 4,500 last year….

A spokesman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said society was “still deeply divided as to whether legislation should be enacted to prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. Some are in support from the perspective of equal opportunity, while others are concerned that this may deal a blow to family, religion and education. This is a highly controversial and sensitive issue in Hong Kong which must be tackled cautiously.”

Botswana: LGBT Group Fights for Legal Recognition

Monica Tabengwa writes this week for Human Rights Watch about an LGBT advocacy organization that has been fighting for official recognition from the government for a decade:

It’s not illegal to be gay in Botswana, but sometimes it must feel like it. Just ask Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO), a non-profit group that’s been fighting for a decade to get official standing in the country, a battle that will come to a head over the next couple of weeks….From 2005 to 2012, LEGABIBO made a series of unsuccessful applications to register the organization. In October 2012 the Registrar of Societies denied LEGABIBO on the basis that the country’s constitution ‘does not recognize homosexuals’.

The High Court is scheduled to render a judgment on the group’s challenge to the registrar’s decision on November 14.

Mozambique: LGBT Group Fighting for Legal Recognition

Lambda, an LGBT group in Mozambique is also protesting the refusal of the Justice Ministry to register it as an association. The group took out a full-page ad in the Maputo daily paper this month protesting its treatment.

In its advertisement, Lambda pointed out that, under the current laws, any group of ten or more Mozambican citizens, over the age of 18, can form an association, and legal registration should not take more than 45 days.

But Lambda has been waiting for seven years, and still “the Mozambican state remains silent”….

“Our primary interest”, Lambda added, “is to precipitate a change in society so that it becomes more favourable to the free expression of sexual orientation and gender identity”.

“The silence of the Mozambican state”, it warns, “legitimizes discrimination and strengthens the stigma to which LGBT people are subject in the communities, workplaces, schools, etc. Above all, it perpetuates the idea that LGBT citizens are less important than all other Mozambicans, thus placing them in a situation of inferiority, disadvantage and inequality”.

According to

Homosexuality is not, and never has been, illegal in Mozambique. The colonial Penal Code, as amended in 1954, contained a clause which thundered against “those who habitually engage in vices against nature”, who could be imprisoned for up to three years.

But who is to decide what constitutes a “vice against nature”? The Portuguese legislators had been too coy to mention gay sex explicitly, and so a meaningless clause entered the statute books, which no court could act upon.

This year, the Penal Code was rewritten. The new Penal Code sweeps away a great deal of the musty colonial legacy, including the mention of “vices against nature”. Now not even the most contorted of arguments could claim that acts of gay sex between consenting adults are somehow illegal.