CAPE TOWN: Friday prayers at the People’s Mosque in Cape Town looks like any other around the Islamic world, except in this South African city the imam is openly gay and the teaching promotes homosexual rights.
It is a stance that provokes outrage from many Muslims, but Muhsin Hendricks has built up a small, loyal congregation by helping worshippers try to reconcile their sexuality and their religion.
“There is this love-hate relationship from the Muslim community,” Hendricks told AFP.
“Sometimes they feel that I should be thrown from the highest mountain, and sometimes they appreciate that there is one imam who is willing to work with people who they are unwilling to work with.”
Cape Town has an active gay scene, and is often described as the “gay capital” of Africa, with a district of gay-friendly restaurants, bars, guesthouses and clubs near the city centre.
In 1996 Hendricks founded “The Inner Circle”, a support group for Muslims living in Cape Town who felt rejected due to their sexual orientation, which led to him setting up the mosque five years ago.
In contrast to the emotions that surround the explosive topic of Islam and homosexuality, the mosque offers a calm and open place for gay Muslims to worship together.
“I got divorced at the age of 29 after being married (to a woman) for six years,” Henrdicks, 48, said.
“That was the point where I just felt — no more double life. I needed to be authentic with myself, and part of that process was to come out.
“This is who I am and if that means I am going to be killed because of my authenticity, then that is how I choose to meet God.”
Today the mosque, located at the Inner Circle offices, has about 25 regular worshippers, and even offers a marriage blessing to gay couples.
South Africa’s 1996 constitution was the first in the world to protect homosexuals’ rights, and the country is the only one in Africa that allows same sex marriages.
But many South Africans of all religious groups are less tolerant, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people are often subject to discrimination and violence.
There are about 300,000 Muslims in Cape Town and most mosque leaders in the city take a clear stand against homosexuality, even encouraging home imprisonment and “corrective treatment”.
“Homosexuality is unacceptable and the punishment will be the fire,” Imam Pandy, leader of a mosque in Mowbray, a busy central district of Cape Town, told AFP.
“How can you be homosexual? It is forbidden. And it is your duty as an imam or as a Muslim to go and speak to them and say ‘no, it cannot be’.”
The Inner Circle group has worked for 20 years to support gay Muslims, often struggling to survive against overwhelming opposition from orthodox Islamic leaders.
“The messaging that the Muslim community gets about queer issues comes from a clergy that is completely homophobic,” said Abdul Karriem Matthews, programme manager at the Inner Circle.
‘Pioneers of change’
For worshippers like Zaid Philander, a local art teacher, the mosque provides a welcome refuge, as well as access to counselling after he endured a harrowing “corrective” ritual conducted by a quack “doctor” in Cape Town.
“There are a lot of lives being destroyed based on sexuality and religion, and that needs to change,” he said. “Here they are the pioneers of this change, and this is a good place to start.
“I choose to be in a place where I can have a healthy relationship with God, and the Inner Circle gives me the freedom to be the person I am.”
At one recent Friday prayers attended by AFP a female visitor from the Middle East gave a sermon to about 30 people citing passages from the Koran to promote an accepting version of Islam.
She asked not to be identified or quoted for fear of hostile reprisals in her native country, where open worship by gay Muslims would be unimaginable.
Hendricks, whose father was also an imam, travels worldwide to spread his message to other gay Muslims that the answer is to stay positive.
“I want to… arrive at a point where we can include queer people,” he said. “I don’t see the Muslim community as the enemy.”