Opposition parties in Malawi are planning protest marches over an announcement by the government that it has suspended anti-homosexual laws in the socially-conservative country.
One opposition leader accused president Joyce Banda, who said earlier this year that she wants to see the laws to be repealed altogether, of “abandoning God” over the issue.
Another insisted that any attempt to repeal the laws that passed through parliament would be rebuffed.
A local newspaper poll suggested that 96 per cent of Malawians were opposed to any change to the current penal code, which provides for homosexual behaviour to be penalised by up to 14 years imprisonment.
Civil society groups claim that Mrs Banda, who took up the presidency after the death of her autocratic predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika in April, was putting the wishes of western donors she has worked hard to woo back to Malawi ahead of those of her countrymen.
Amid the public outcry, Ralph Kasambara, the Justice Minister and Attorney General, has backed away from his reported announcement that the anti-gay laws would be suspended.
Mr Kasambara was said to have told the meeting: “There is a moratorium, meaning that police will not arrest or prosecute anyone based on these laws. These laws will not be enforced until the time Parliament makes a decision.”
But in an interview with the Daily Times newspaper this week, he insisted: “Nobody talked about suspension of any provision of the penal code.”
The announcement was reported around the world and drew praise from human rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
But it was met with outrage from religious groups, politicians and legal groups in Malawi.
Malawi’s Law Society said that Mr Kasambara had “no right” to tamper with laws.
Kamlepo Kalua, head of the Malawi Democratic Party, said it was a “wrong decision legally and morally” and suggested Mrs Banda had “abandoned God”.
“This is a shame and satanic in nature,” he told Malawi’s Nyasa Times. “The country is a secular state but there is no way we can sell our lives to the devil just to please some sick people.”
Robert Phiri, executive director of the interfaith Public Affairs Committee, told The Scotsman that his organisation would be demanding answers from Mrs Banda during a meeting next week. “The government continues to make contradictory statements,” he said.