GENEVA (Reuters) - Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the global Anglican communion, stepped on Tuesday into a row which is flaring at the U.N. Human Rights Council over the persecution of gays and lesbians.
Williams, who has faced strong opposition from parts of his own church especially in Africa for his stance on gays, did not directly refer to the current controversy at the Council, according to the text of a speech prepared for delivery at the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC).
However, he said laws against sexual minorities were equivalent to racism, and warned that legal regulation of consensual sexual conduct "can be both unworkable and open to appalling abuse - intimidation and blackmail."
A panel of the U.N. rights body will consider action in Geneva on Wednesday aimed at halting persecution of gays and lesbians around the world, despite fierce condemnation from Muslim and some African countries.
A report prepared for the gathering by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says homosexuals and bisexuals face execution in at least five countries and 76 nations had laws criminalizing gay sex.
They also accounted disproportionately for torture cases in jails around the globe, said the report which was mandated by a council resolution backed by Western and a range of developing states that was passed narrowly last June.
But in a statement in advance of the panel, Pakistan said the 57-nation Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) opposed the convening of the panel and would not accept any recommendations that it might issue.
The Pakistani statement, in a letter to the president of the council, said "abnormal sexual behavior" was an outcome of personal behavior and preferences "having nothing to do with fundamental human rights."
"The existence of laws discriminating against sexual minorities as such can have no justification in societies that are serious about law itself," Williams declared in a public lecture at the headquarters of the ecumenical WCC.
"Such laws reflect a refusal to recognize that minorities belong, and they are indeed comparable to racial discrimination," the archbishop said.
Concern for protection of sexual minorities from violence and intimidation did not imply approval of homosexual behavior on moral grounds. "Religion and culture have their own arguments on these matters," he added.
"But a culture that argues about such things is a culture that is able to find a language in common. Criminalize a minority and there is no chance of such a language in common or of any properly civil or civic discussion."
In its statement on behalf of the Saudi-based OIC, Pakistan rejected any such discussion, saying the Islamic grouping opposed "the consideration of these controversial notions in the context of human rights at international fora."
A delegate from the new Libyan government told a council preparatory meeting last week that homosexuality, which many Islamic countries accuse the West of promoting to undermine their societies, could lead to the end of humanity.
At a Geneva news conference on Monday, OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Turkish academic and former diplomat, said the organization focused its concern on preserving family values and had similar views on homosexuality as the Vatican.
But commentators familiar with Catholic Church doctrine said that although the Vatican regards homosexual behavior as sinful, it accepts that it can be instinctive and is opposed to its criminalization.
Reported by Robert Evans; additional reporting by Tom Heneghan; editing by David Stamp