Anglican leader braves criticism from Freetown archbishop on gays

FREETOWN (AFP) - Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams praised Sierra Leone's religious tolerance, a day after hearing a categorical statement by the archbishop of Freetown opposing homosexuality within the Anglican clergy.

On the second day of his week-long visit to Sierra Leone, the Anglican leader met Vice President Solomon Berewa in Freetown for talks, followed Monday by a short press conference.

Williams said the "high level of religious tolerance" in the mainly Muslim country had helped it overcome the devastation of its 10-year civil war, bringing "peace and security to the country".

Berewa, standing in for President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who is out of the country, said the communion of Anglican churches had been a "true friend of Sierra Leone", adding that the government was careful to treat "all religions in parity".

Neither Williams nor Berewa broached the delicate issue of homosexuality in the church, which on Sunday provoked an outspoken attack on the appointment of gay clergymen from Archbishop of Freetown Julius Lynch, at a mass officiated by Williams at a football stadium here.

Lynch harshly criticised the recent nomination of Canon Jeffry John, a homosexual, as bishop for the English town of Reading.

Although the appointment was made by another senior Church of England clergyman, the bishop of Oxford, Williams had indicated he had no objection to the move. Canon John later turned down the job after the controversy threatened to split the Church of England clergy.

Addressing the open-air gathering at the National Stadium, Archbishop Lynch said bluntly: "The issue of same-sex union in the Anglican church is not tolerated by the Anglican community in Sierra Leone."

Amid deafening applause from the 2,000-strong congregation, he added: "We express our condemnation as a diocese over the controversial appointment of Canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading.

"We thank God Canon John turned down the appointment and saved the denomination a big slap on the face. We need to be protected from becoming a laughing stock among other Christians."

Williams, looking ruffled, did not respond directly to Lynch's comments on homosexuality, but said his vision for church was for "Gods people to recognize the image of God, and for people in the Anglican community to realise that they belong to one another".

Referring to the 1992-2002 civil war hre, Williams said: "We had felt the sufferings of Sierra Leoneans from afar. We hope Sierra Leoneans will be encouraged by the word of God."

Sierra Leonean newspapers on Monday backed Archbishop Lynch's outspoken comments, with the Billy Vision daily describing the nomination of gay bishops as "improper". However, the paper added that such appointments were "not the fault of the (appointed) bishops or archbishops, but those who make them".

Another influential Freetown daily, the Awoko, went much further. "If you walk in on two men having sexual relations with each other, would you kill them?" it asked. "We would have them executed."