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Will the Pope Challenge Homophobia in Uganda?

FILE - A vendor arranges portraits of Pope Francis outside of the Lubaga Cathedral in Kampala, Uganda, Nov. 13, 2015.

Pope Francis embarks this week on an Africa tour that will take him to the Central African Republic, Kenya and Uganda. Gay rights activists say they hope the pope brings a message of tolerance.

In Uganda, Catholics make up nearly half of the Christian population and hold considerable sway within a number of communities.

The pope’s upcoming trip to the country, where same-sex acts are illegal, has many wondering if he will address the issue of widespread and sometimes violent homophobia. The pope, once commenting as part of a response to reports of gay clergy members in the Vatican, said that if a person is gay and searches for the Lord in goodwill, who is he to judge.

Joanne Banura, a devout Catholic, says she approves of the pope's stance.

"Jesus never condemned anybody so that's what he's also doing,” she said. “He's representing the image of Jesus Christ on Earth. So if homosexuals come up and they tell us 'we are homosexual' and want to be accepted, we shall accept them being as they are also created in the image of God."

Banura, however, also says she supported Uganda's now-annulled Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, which condemned gays to harsh jail sentences for same-sex acts.

"When they come to the Church, they will not be condemned,” she said. “When they come to the community in Uganda, they will be condemned by other people, because the law of the country will take over."

FILE - A woman stands in front of posters of Pope Francis on Nov. 8, 2015, at the Martyrs of Uganda church in Bamako, Mali.
FILE - A woman stands in front of posters of Pope Francis on Nov. 8, 2015, at the Martyrs of Uganda church in Bamako, Mali.

Like Banura, many Ugandans say they feel there is no contradiction between supporting religious doctrine that does not condemn LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) citizens, and at the same time supporting laws which send such individuals to jail. They say this is because Uganda's local cultures must be respected.

Last year, a case against two Ugandan men accused of committing homosexual acts was dismissed for lack of evidence. One of those men, Jackson Mukasa, was recently quoted by Reuters as saying he would like the pope to at least make people know that being gay is not a curse.

Even though the 2014 measure was annulled, homosexuality is still illegal under laws dating back to the colonial era.

Joseph Ntuwa is the parish secretary at Our Lady of Africa Catholic Church. He also supported the Anti-Homosexuality Act, but says he believes the church should be more tolerant of gays.

"I believe Pope Francis when his message might be about us not condemning the homosexuals, but us trying to help them,” he said, “because you get some of them who were just trained. Who were recruited when they were still young. And we're judging them harshly. So I think his message will be more into how to help them and accommodate them in our community."

Most parishioners say they want the pope to tackle what they say are more pressing issues in Uganda, such as peaceful elections, health care and education.

There has been no word on whether the pope will speak about gays during his visit.