Religion in the news

Singapore, Singapore - In a country where homosexual sex is punishable by prison time and the government bans gay-themed parties, the Free Community Church stands out. It is the only place of Christian worship willing to accept gays and lesbians in Singapore.

"Each time, God seemed to use the people that didn't fit in to bring salvation," church leader Clarence Singam, who is gay, said at a recent Sunday service.

"I wonder how many of you don't fit in, you don't feel comfortable in your skin?" he asked the 100-odd members of the congregation, using John the Baptist as an example of the "odd one out."

The Southeast Asian city-state of 4.2 million considers gay sex as "an act of gross indecency," punishable by a maximum of two years in jail.

The country also has banned Asia's largest gay-themed party, Nation '05, from its shores. High-ranking government officials said such same-sex parties may be the reason for rising HIV infections in Singapore.

At the Free Community Church, however, the attitude toward sexuality is much different.

"At this church, there are no prejudices, no preconceived notions," said Gary Chan, who left his old church when its leaders discovered he was gay and asked him to quit the church band.

"Here, we look at people like they're clean sheets of paper," he said.

The status of the church says something about the place of gays and lesbians in Singapore.

Though in practice homosexuality is often tolerated, gay sex is illegal here, and gay groups are unable to register as legitimate organizations.

The church, however, has managed to circumvent regulations by registering itself as a company, meaning the worship sessions are considered private gatherings. The group has moved several times, meeting in a pub, a theater and now at a low-rise commercial building.

Leaders say they still get hate mail.

"They say that this church exists that is going out, reaching out, trying to make people gay," said Susan Tang, a married housewife with three children and the only heterosexual on the church council.

Former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in a 2003 interview with Time magazine that the straight-laced city-state was now more tolerant of homosexuals and the administration was "not going to chase you all over the place." But Goh, now senior minister, also warned homosexuals in the same interview not to "flaunt your gay rights."

The Free Community Church is not recognized by the influential National Council of Churches in Singapore, which represents Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians, among others. NCSS vice president Robert Solomon said in a statement that "the practice of homosexuality is clearly incompatible with the teachings of the Christian faith."

In terms of membership, the church is a mishmash of people from various Christian denominations and its services have elements from several worship styles -- there's a communion service, and also a Christian rock band, for instance. The congregation has no pastor, so different people preach every week.

"We cover the whole spectrum," Tang said.

At once recent service, most people in the church were ethnic Chinese, who comprise around 80 percent of the country's population. Most of Singapore's people are Buddhist, followed by Christians. The nation's other main religion, Islam, is also against homosexuality.

Tang acknowledged the church has members who defy Singapore's conservative culture with a party-loving and promiscuous style, but added the church has counseling sessions to advise them to "behave responsibly."

The church's chairwoman, Jean Chong, said the church offers a place for gays and lesbians to finally find acceptance. "It took me a long time to figure out that it's OK to be gay and Christian in Singapore," she said.