ADDIS ABABA: The 16th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) has started with some drama. Leading Ethiopian religious leaders demanded the cancellation of the Saturday pre-conference that was scheduled to focus on men who have sex with men and HIV/AIDS.
The meeting organized by South African-based Joel Nana and the African Men for Sexual Health and Rights—read our interview from AIDS 2010 in Vienna—was forced to change its venue after an ugly press conference condemning the day-long event.
The leaders of Ethiopia's main religious denominations faced journalists briefly. Abune Paulos, the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was there, along with representatives of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, the Roman Catholic Church, and Protestant denominations.
But before anything could be said, Ethiopia's Health Minister Tewodros Adhanom arrived and asked for a word with the religious leaders in private. After nearly an hour, the leaders left without comment. The Reverend Iteffa Gobena Molte, president of the Ethiopian Evangelical Council Mekane Yesus told reporters the event would be rescheduled.
"It's postponed to another time. And when they are ready they will call upon you to come and record them," said Iteffa. Reporters initially were told the news conference had been called to condemn a planned conference on "men who have sex with men."
The website of a group called the African Men for Sexual Health and Rights, or AMSHER, says the meeting is to be held Saturday at an Addis Ababa hotel. A list of speakers posted on the website include Michel Sidibe, director of UNAIDS, and Eric Goosby, the United States Global AIDS Coordinator.
Rev. Iteffa is the Ecumenical Envoy to the African Union, which is based here in Addis Ababa.
The MSM pre-conference was re-scheduled Saturday to a secure location at one of the United Nations compounds. Armed UN troops guarded the MSM activists and meeting. No pictures were allowed. Look for my report next week...
The publicity surrounding the incident went viral across the internet and Facebook, notes the Ethiopian Reporter, which describes the events as "an unprecedented controversy in Addis Ababa."
The Federal Republic of Ethiopia is one of at least 38 of Africa's 54 nations that currently have laws penalizing same-sex relations or even sexuality. Four nations—Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan—boast the death penalty for gays or same-sex activity. Prosecutions are rare but same-sex acts in Ethiopia carry penalties of imprisonment of more than ten years.
MSM criminalizations laws and homophobia are the topics of a number of sessions at the United Nations and UNAIDS-sponsored ICASA 2011. Up to ten thousand people—including former President George W. Bush—are expected at the conference that opens today in Addis Ababa.
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AIDS 2010: Joel Nana on African MSM