YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Conservative church leaders are praising a recent ruling by Malawi’s Constitutional Court refusing to decriminalize same-sex relationships, while human rights groups are condemning the move in the southern African nation.

In a landmark ruling on June 28, the court dismissed a case brought by two applicants challenging Malawi’s laws criminalizing same-sex relationships, wanting the court to legalize gay relationships in the country.

The two applicants, Jan Willem Akster from the Netherlands and a Malawian trans woman, Jana Gonani, were responding to criminal charges in lower courts. Akster had been accused of sexual abuse and sodomy, while Jana faces trial for what Malawian law described as “unnatural behavior.”

The two had sought relief in the Constitutional Court, arguing that Malawi’s anti-gay laws violate their fundamental rights, including the right to privacy and dignity.

Judges Joseph Chigona, Vikochi Chima and Chimbizgani Kacheche rejected their arguments, saying that the applicants failed to prove their case beyond any reasonable doubt.

Malawi has some of the harshest anti-gay laws in the world, with offenders likely to spend as many as 14 years in jail. The court said the applicants could ask parliament to amend the country’s laws on homosexuality if the judgment didn’t satisfy them.

The decision has received praise from church groups not only in Malawi, but as far away as the United Kingdom.

Human Life International, a conservative pro-life and pro-family Catholic group, welcomed the court’s ruling on July 3, saying it is “in adherence” with the nation’s treatment of homosexuality as an imprisonable offense.

Dr. Brian Clowes, Director of Education and Research at Human Life International, said in a statement that the ruling reflected “the wisdom of Africa.”

“Once again, we Westerners see the wisdom of Africa. Instead of following the latest fads, Africans follow God and His plan for our lives. This is why Africa will lead the world in just a couple of decades. All the African people have to do is reject the corruption the West is trying to force upon them.”

“We thank God for the victory,” said Father Alpheus Zikomankhani of Human Life International Malawi.

Last year, the Catholic church in Malawi helped organizer protests when the hearing before the Constitutional Court was announced.

“As Africans and deeply religious people, in spite of our poverty, we must stand up in defiant defense of the family and culture, even when we are under severe pressure from the rich but virtually pagan societies which sadly appear to push us back to the path of colonization after the foundation fathers of our nation won bloody battles against all forms of colonization,” Father Alfred Chaima, secretary general of Malawi’s bishops conference, said at the time.

But the court’s decision has also received sharp rebuke from rights organizations. Amnesty international has described the ruling as “a bitter setback for human rights.”

In a June 28 statement, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, Khanyo Farise, said “the court’s decision to keep these discriminatory laws on the books is a bitter setback for human rights in Malawi.”

“The ruling manifestly flies in the face of Malawi’s constitution, the African Charter and international human rights law, which all clearly prohibit discrimination. It also makes Malawi an outlier in Southern Africa, where most countries have decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual conduct,” Farise said.

The Amnesty spokesperson said the court’s refusal to overturn the laws “means LGBTI persons in Malawi will continue to face discrimination and persecution simply for who they love. In particular, this ruling translates to continued barriers in access to healthcare and other social services for LGBTI persons.”

“Amnesty International stands with all LGBTI people in Malawi, who deserve the right to live their lives with dignity and full humanity. We also demand that authorities ensure their safety in the face of threats of violence,” Farise said.

In July 2023, religious groups took to the streets in Malawi in anti-gay protests in the buildup to a constitutional hearing brought by Gonani, who had been convicted in December 2021 by a lower court. She appealed the ruling, arguing that anti-gays laws violate citizens’ rights to privacy and dignity.

The case was interpreted by the protesters as a step towards legitimizing LGBTQ+ relationships.

“Just as the church cares for all sinners, and wants them to repent, it will also do the same with gay men and lesbians. Any attempt to legitimize sinful acts will meet resistance from the faith community,” said the general secretary for Malawi Council of Churches, the Rev Alemekezeke Chikondi Phiri, who helped organize the protests.

Out of the 54 African states, homosexuality was outlawed in 30 as of June 2024. Only South Africa and Namibia have legalized same sex marriages. South Africa became the first African country to do so in 2006, while in May 2023 the Supreme Court of Namibia ruled foreign same-sex marriages must be recognized equally to heterosexual marriages.

Such moves elsewhere may be a hard sell, particularly for the Catholic Church in Africa. In a January 11 declaration following a Vatican document allowing Catholic priests to bless persons in same-sex relationships, Africa’s Catholic bishops were emphatic.

“We, the African bishops, do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples because, in our context, this would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities,” their statement said.