By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, Nov 29 (Reuters) - A meeting organised by an African gay lobby group ahead of an AIDS conference in Ethiopia has sparked a rare spat between the government and religious groups.
Religious leaders demand the cancellation of the gathering scheduled for Saturday, organised by African Men for Sexual Health and Rights, saying it would violate the country's conservative culture.
State officials, however, are unwilling to budge having lobbied hard to win hosting rights for the influential 16th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa due to start a day later.
On Tuesday, Abune Paulos, partriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, joined the Muslim mufti and the heads of the Catholic and Protestant churches for a meeting before delivering scathing remarks about homosexuals to the media.
Young church activists handed out dossiers railing against the weekend meeting on "men who have sex with men (MSM) in Africa and HIV", which is scheduled to feature presentations from 15 experts.
"We were prompted to sound this alarm after this group launched immoral activities that would tarnish and dirty our culture," read part of the dossier.
Health Minister Tedros Adhanom met the religious leaders but made no denunciation of the gay group's gathering. Abune Paulos afterwards told reporters: "We will continue to pray."
Homosexuality is taboo in many African nations. It is illegal in 37 countries on the continent, including Ethiopia, and activists say few Africans are openly gay, fearing imprisonment, violence and loss of jobs.
Homosexual acts in Ethiopia carry penalties of imprisonment of up to 15 years.
Religious leaders, including Abune Paulos, have in the past called for a constitutional ban on homosexuality, which they once termed "the pinnacle of immorality."
"For people to act in this manner they have to be dumb, stupid like animals," he told reporters in 2008. "We strongly condemn this behaviour. They have to be disciplined and their acts discriminated, they have to be given a lesson." (Editing by David Clarke)