The Nigerian bishops oppose gay marriage but do not support the criminalization of homosexuals, said Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama in Rome while attending the Synod of Bishops on the family.
The media misunderstood the position of the Nigerian church, he said. "The Catholic church respects all human beings. And we believe that we are all created in the image and likeness of God," he said. But for cultural and religious reasons, "we Africans believe that marriage is between a man and a woman."
"That does not mean that we hate people of that orientation," he added.
In a January letter on behalf of the Nigerian bishops, the archbishop congratulated Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan for signing into law a bill against gay marriage that made it punishable by 14 years in prison. The letter said:
Your decision and that of your administration in conjunction with the Federal Legislature, not to bow to international pressure in the promotion of unethical and immoral practices of same sex union and other related vices is indeed a courageous one and a clear indication of the ability of our great country to stand shoulders high in the protection of our Nigerian and African most valued cultures of the institution of marriage and protection of the dignity of the human person.
In response, The Southern Cross, a newspaper operated by the bishops of South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland, attacked the Nigerian law and a similar law in Uganda. It called the laws unjust and homophobic, and accused U.S.-backed fundamentalist Christians of agitating for anti-gay legislation.
"Prejudice and persecution of homosexuals are in defiance of Catholic doctrine," said the editorial, which urged the African bishops "to speak out, as loudly as they do on same-sex marriage, against the discriminatory legislation and violence directed at homosexuals, many of whom are fellow Catholics."
At a Vatican press conference Wednesday, Kaigama clarified that the Nigerian bishops supported the part of the legislation that said marriage was between a man and a woman. "That was all we were supporting," he said. "We were not supporting the criminalizing of people with different sexual orientation."
"We are serious defenders of human rights," he continued. "And we would defend any person with homosexual orientation who has been harassed, who has been imprisoned, who has been punished."
"We promote what is based in our culture and our religion," he said, but "we do not just throw away the persons, we embrace them in love."
"The government may want to punish them but we don't," he said, but the bishops will "tell the government to stop punishing those who have different orientations."
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]