The Sydney Morning Herald reports…
“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.
It’s also behind the Watoto Choir, an acclaimed children’s choir that tours the world. It just finished a tour of Australia last week.
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.
On at least two occasions Mr Robert charged taxpayers for the travel, with the bill totalling almost $20,000. On two other occasions he declared free 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 only resigned his directorship 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 website, 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 US 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, told Fairfax Media. “Skinner was also one of the people who invited Lou Engle to Africa.”
Mr Langa is a Watoto Church elder who has been one of the driving forces behind the anti-gay legislation, publicly and behind the scenes.
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 a range of virulently anti-gay American preachers.
He was the chief organiser of a now notorious March 2009 conference that gave a platform to three American 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.
He subsequently bragged that his appearance in Uganda was like a “nuclear bomb” against the “gay agenda” in Africa.
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.
Mr Skinner was one of the official endorsers of New Apostolic Reformation prophet Lou Engle’s TheCall rally in Kampala in 2010.
Mr Engle says homosexuality comes from “the gates of hell” and has advice for anyone struggling with gay desires: “Let the Bible kill you”.
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 has 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 later said Mr Robert was not aware of Mr Skinner’s views and did not support them.
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.
In media interviews, he has described Watoto as a “truly special place” and “a thing of beauty”.
Mr Skinner, who grew up in a white 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.
In the United States, the LGBTI community has petitioned to keep Mr Skinner and the Watoto Choir out of the country.
American pastor Louie Giglio withdrew from participating in President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony following uproar from gay rights activists over his stance on homosexuality – including his ties to Watoto.
Comment was sought from both the Watoto Church and Watoto Australia.”