The former Archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu has joined 120 Christian and Jewish leaders in a call to the government of Uganda to stop homophobia in the country.

In a letter to President Yoweri Museveni they demanded an end to “verbal assaults and legal attacks of your government on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) people.”

Most of the signatories were clergy in the Metropolitan Community Church, the world’s largest and oldest Christian denomination with an affirming ministry to LGBT people.

“All religious traditions demand that we care for the neighbour and the oppressed among us and that we uphold the dignity of every person,” they wrote.

“No one should have to live in fear simply because of who they are.

“As a moral leader we know that you do not wish to see Uganda citizens suffer unnecessarily, and we are therefore asking you to call an end to the witch hunt against the most vulnerable in your community.

“We are particularly concerned that members of your government have called for criminal action against people solely because of whom they love and have censored and silenced attempts by LGBT people to speak on their own behalf.

“These actions only promote fear, profound isolation and invisibility.”

Last year Ugandan deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhindi called for the criminal law to be used against lesbians and gays.

Section 140 of Uganda’s penal code carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for homosexual conduct, while Section 141 punishes ‘attempts’ at carnal knowledge with a maximum of seven years of imprisonment.

Section 143 punishes acts of “gross indecency” with up to five years in prison, while a sodomy conviction carries a penalty of 14 years to life imprisonment.

The Rev. Pat Bumgardner, chair of the Global Justice Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, said:

“I share a deep concern with many faith leaders that this hostility by Uganda’s government officials comes in the midst of the HIV and AIDS pandemic that still ravages so much of the African continent.

“The pandemic will be addressed effectively only in an environment where human rights are promoted and basic freedoms are protected. Stigma and discrimination push people deeper into closets of fear, making prevention and treatment much more difficult.”

A poll in August 2007 found that 95% of Ugandans want homosexual acts to remain illegal.

Government officials have regularly threatened and harassed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans.

In 2005 Uganda became the first country in the world to introduce laws banning same-sex marriage.

Last summer an organisation called Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a coalition of four LGBT organisations, launched a campaign called “Let us Live in Peace.”

At a press conference in Kampala on August 16th, the group condemned discrimination and violence against LGBT people, as well as the life-threatening silence about their sexualities in HIV/AIDS prevention programmes.

In response, Ethics and Integrity Minister James Nsaba Buturo told the BBC on August 17th that homosexuality was “unnatural.”

He denied charges of police harassment of LGBT people, but also declared, “We know them, we have details of who they are.”

In the wake of the SMUG press conference, Pastor Martin Ssempa organised an August 21 rally in Kampala to address what he called “a call for action on behalf of victims of homosexuality.”

Calling homosexuality “a criminal act against the laws of nature,” Ssempa led hundreds of demonstrators demanding government action against LGBT people.