March 26, 2014 at 11:04 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Obama urged to raise LGBT issues with Francis

Pope Francis, Catholic Church, gay news, Washington Blade

Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with President Obama at the Vatican on Thursday. (Photo by Agência Brasil; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Advocates have urged President Obama to raise LGBT-specific issues with Pope Francis during their meeting at the Vatican on Thursday.

Human Rights First President Elisa Massimino and Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said in a letter to Obama that the meeting will be “an important opportunity to address critical moral issues confronting the global community.”

“We write to urge you to use this meeting — and the joint statement following it — to reinforce Pope Francis’ positive statements on the inherent dignity of LGBT people and to amplify the shared opposition of the United States and the Catholic Church to laws criminalizing LGBT people which have sparked violence against this vulnerable minority around the world,” said the women.

Massimino and Kennedy specifically cited Nigeria and Russia, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics last month against the backdrop of criticism over the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record, in their letter to Obama. The women further noted Francis is expected to travel to Uganda this year.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last month signed a bill into law that imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts.

“At a time when members of the LGBT community are being arrested, attacked, and ‘outed’ in situations that make them vulnerable to violence, there is a real urgency for U.S. leadership,” writes Massimino and Kennedy. “There is particular value for Pope Francis to raise this issue publicly in Uganda because his words will reverberate throughout Africa and worldwide at this time, and we hope he would raise these issues consistently.”

LGBT Federation of Argentina President Esteban Paulón told the Washington Blade he also hopes Obama will discuss Russia and Uganda’s LGBT rights records with Francis.

Paulón noted the pontiff was among the most vocal opponents of his country’s same-sex marriage bill before lawmakers approved it in 2010. Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner criticized then-Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio over his rhetoric against the measure that included calls for a “holy war” against it.

“We hope that in this meeting President Obama, like he did when he visited Russia (in 2013) and in recent declarations against Uganda’s homophobic laws, brings to the table at this meeting the need for the Vatican to change the position it has had on LGBT rights,” Paulón told the Blade. “We know that Obama supports marriage equality and the pope was the most active opponent to the Argentina law.”

Paulón added he hopes Obama will also urge Francis to change the Vatican’s policy towards sexual abuse.

“The Vatican must stop covering up and protecting pedophiles,” said Paulón.

LGBT Catholics continue to welcome Francis’ more moderate approach to gays in the church since he succeeded Pope Benedict XVI last March.

The Argentine-born pontiff said last summer during an interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit magazine, the church has grown “obsessed” with same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception. Francis less than two months earlier told reporters who asked him about the reported homosexuality of the man whom he appointed to oversee the Vatican bank during a flight back to Rome after attending World Youth Day in Brazil that gay men and lesbians should not be judged or marginalized.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2001 visited a hospice to kiss and wash the feet of 12 people with AIDS. Dignity USA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke told the Blade during an interview earlier this month that Francis uses the word “gay” as opposed to “homosexual or same-sex attraction disorder or any of the sort of distancing and clinical kind of terms” that Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, used.

The LGBT Catholics and advocates with whom the Blade spoke about the first anniversary of Francis’ pontificate noted church teaching on homosexuality, marriage and other issues has not changed in spite of his more conciliatory tone.

Francis last July criticized what he described as the “gay lobby” during his press conference with reporters while returning to Rome from World Youth Day. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child last month sharply criticized the Vatican over its continued opposition to homosexuality and anti-gay rhetoric that contributes to the “social stigmatization of and violence against” LGBT adolescents and children raised by same-sex couples.

A White House spokesperson on Wednesday declined to say whether Obama would raise LGBT-specific issues during his meeting with Francis.

“You always welcome the opportunity to meet with the pope,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Wednesday while traveling to Rome from Brussels where Obama discussed Russia’s continued aggression towards Ukraine with European and NATO allies. “But in particular, the president – I think like many people around the world – has been inspired by the first year that Pope Francis has had, by the way in which he has motivated people around the world by his message of inclusion, of equality, which has deep meaning for people both of the Catholic faith, but people of different faiths all over the world.”

“It’s an opportunity for them to get to know each other personally, for the president to hear from the pope about what he is trying to do around the world, and really for the president to express his appreciation for the pope’s leadership on a range of challenges that he has highlighted in his first year,” added Rhodes.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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