MP has ties to anti-gay African church

Adam Gartrell - Federal Politics

Turnbull government MP Stuart Robert has close ties to an African church that supports harsh anti-gay laws and is run by a preacher described as “one of the most homophobic people in the world”.

Mr Robert was a founding direc­tor of Watoto Australia, an offshoot of the Ugandan-based Pentecostal Watoto Church, and has called church leader Gary Skinner one of the “great influences” on his life.

Watoto is a popular force in Uganda, preaching to 24,000 people across 11 churches and helping chil­dren orphaned by war and AIDS. Mr Skinner’s wife, Marilyn, also advoc­ates for women’s rights.

The church is also behind the Watoto Choir, an acclaimed chil­dren’s choir that tours the world. It just finished a tour of Australia.

But the church has a darker side.

Gay and lesbian activists say Watoto and Mr Skinner are viru­lently anti-gay and have contributed to violent homophobia in Uganda. Mr Robert, who was also a member of Watoto’s International Board, has travelled to the Ugandan capital Kampala many times to meet Mr Skinner, who says homosexuality is “degrading” and an “inhuman sin” that brings disease and destroys families.

At least twice, Mr Robert charged taxpayers for the travel, with the bill totalling almost $20,000. On two other occasions, he declared travel to Africa on his register of interests paid for by Watoto.

In 2006, Mr Robert self-published a book about the church called Hope: The Watoto Journey. Mr Robert resigned his dir­ectorship only when he became a minis­ter in the Abbott government in 2013.

Mr Skinner’s church also advoc­ates the “reform” and “reintegration” into society of gay people. On its web site, Watoto Church says it “adheres to the biblical standard of sexuality”, which means “it is a gift from God to be enjoyed only within the confines of a monogamous, het­erosexual marriage relationship”.

It also says it is in favour of “pro-family legislation that reflects and preserves this biblical standard”.

This “pro-family legislation” has included Uganda’s notorious “kill the gays” bill.

Gay rights cam­paigners say Watoto and Mr Skin­ner supported the harsh anti-gay bill that drew widespread interna­tional condemnation, even in its original incarnation, when it in­cluded the death penalty.

The church asked congregants to sign a petition in support of the bill, which the United States has called “atro­cious” and compared to the anti-Semitic laws in Nazi Germany and apartheid in South Africa.

The bill was eventually passed without the death penalty included, instead imposing a life sentence for homosexuality. The new version of the bill, which also imposes seven-year prison terms for “aiding and abetting” homosexuals, was annulled by the country’s constitu­tional court, but only on procedural grounds. Proponents are agitating to resurrect it.

One of Uganda’s top gay rights advocates, Frank Mugisha, la­belled Mr Skinner “one of the most homophobic people in the world”. But he says Mr Skinner’s charit­able work makes him popular and therefore influential.

The Nobel peace prize nominee says while Mr Skinner has not been a public proponent of anti-gay laws, his church has supported them strongly. He has also supported, endorsed and hosted anti-gay preachers from abroad who have come into Uganda to whip up homophobic sentiment.

“The church has supported anti-gay Christians like Stephen Langa, one of the key supporters of the anti-gay laws,” Dr Mugisha, a win­ner of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for his advocacy, said. “Skinner was also one of the people who invited Lou Engle to Africa.”

Mr Langa is a Watoto Church elder and one of the driving forces behind the anti-gay legislation.

He has referred to the LGBTI community as the “kingdom of Sa­tan”, believes there is a homosexu­al plot to take over the world, and has close ties to anti-gay US preachers.

He was the chief organ­iser of a now notorious March 2009 conference that gave a platform to three US evangelical preachers who claimed wealthy Westerners were trying to bribe Ugandan children into becoming gay. Dr Mugisha and others say this con­ference was a watershed moment that whipped up anti-gay hysteria. Just one month later, Ugandan MP David Bahati introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill to rid the coun­try of “homos”.

One of the speakers at the con­ference was Scott Lively, who reportedly also sermonised at Watoto. He is the author of Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party, which seeks to blame gays for the Holocaust.

Langa and Lively were sub­sequently named as co-conspirators in a lawsuit over an alleged plot to deprive Ugandan gays of their human rights, brought by Dr Mugisha’s Sexual Minorities in Uganda. The case is ongoing in the US courts.

A spokesman for Mr Robert said he was a director of Watoto Aus­tralia for almost a decade on an “unpaid and voluntary basis”. He said Mr Robert had visited Africa more than a dozen times to work in refugee camps and AIDS treat­ment centres, on orphan programs and with micro-economic training companies.

“He and his family have person­ally funded and built a number of homes for orphaned children and spent over a decade working for the betterment of orphaned chil­dren,” the spokesman said.

“Gary Skinner’s views are a mat­ter for him.”

The spokesman did not say whether Mr Robert agreed with Mr Skinner’s views.

Mr Robert is strongly against same-sex marriage, and has used parliamentary speeches to rail against “gay IVF” and proclaim that “homosexual relationships are far more unstable than heterosexu­al ones”. “Nothing should be done by any parliament to make it likely that more children will be raised by same-sex couples,” he said in 2008.

He has described Watoto as a “truly special place” and “a thing of beauty”.

Mr Skinner, who grew up in a missionary family in Zimbabwe, is a regular visitor to Australia. He has been a guest preacher at the Pentecostal Hillsong Church in Sydney.

Hillsong supports Watoto financially, donating $720,000 to Mr Skinner during a 2007 visit.

Watoto Australia raises more than $3 million a year for the church. Last year, the church raised $48 million worldwide.

Watoto Church and Watoto Aus­tralia were asked for comment.