News

Ethiopia tour for gay, lesbian travelers in jeopardy amid backlash from faith groups

A Toto Tours group in Botswana in 2014. Courtesy photo

CHICAGO (RNS) — Dan Ware hoped to visit Ethiopia this fall with a group of fellow travelers, touring the country’s famed churches and meeting with leaders of one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world.

Now that trip is in jeopardy.

All because Ware and many of his traveling companions are gay.

“You can’t come to Ethiopia for tours. You’re not human beings. You are less than animals,” reads one email Ware received this week as president of Toto Travel, which organizes trips for gay and lesbian travelers, as well as their close friends and family.

That’s typical of the hundreds of messages he said he has gotten since an Ethiopian blogger first criticized Toto’s “Treasures of Ethiopia” tour, set for late October.

Now the tour may be canceled due to the backlash primarily from religious groups in the African country, where most people belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and consensual same-sex relations are criminalized.

Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church leaders walk in a procession during a morning mass in Addis Ababa on September 24, 2010. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili.

“It just is incredible for a religion that preaches the teachings of Jesus Christ — which are all about love and tolerance, treating people with love and equanimity — that they would treat us this way. It just boggles the mind,” said Ware, who was raised as a Pentecostal Christian before converting to the Baha’i faith.

He now simply believes in what he calls “the power of love.”

Ware founded Toto Tours nearly 30 years ago when he left his job working at the Baha’i National Center in the Chicago area after co-workers learned he was gay.

In that time, he said, Toto’s gay and lesbian customers have had good experiences. The travelers have learned something new, as do the people they meet during the trips.

“What happens when you go in a group to another culture is you learn, you’re changed, your perspectives are altered. And, you know, the same happens with the people you visit. They go, ‘Wow, we’ve never met gay people before,'” he said.

“It’s like we’re ambassadors, and always it has been a positive thing.”

Toto’s planned 16-day tour of Ethiopia, still shown on its website, includes visits to holy sites such as the ancient rock-hewn churches in Lalibela and the Debre Berhan Selassie church in Gondar.

The website describes “two exciting days” exploring Lalibela and the opportunity to meet with clergy there to discuss the history of the churches. It also describes the country as the “ancestral home to all of mankind,” noting its “fascinating history stretching back more than 3,000 years to the fabled reign of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.”

The Church of Saint George, one of many churches hewn into the rocky hills of Lalibela. By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC