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Gay debate termed one of numerous issues

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NAIROBI, Kenya — The new head of the All Africa Conference of Churches said debate over gay clergy should not distract the continent's Christians from addressing other critical concerns.

"The issue of homosexuality is one that has the potential of splitting the church right in the middle, and it has got to be handled with care," Rev. Mvume Dandala, the conference's new general secretary, said this week.

"The AACC is going to encourage churches to discuss the issue, but it must not undermine the greater challenges facing the churches."

Many African church leaders responded swiftly and negatively when the U.S. Episcopal General Convention voted Aug. 5 to confirm the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson has been living with his male partner for more than 13 years and is the first openly gay bishop in Episcopal history.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member global Anglican Communion, whose African leaders are threatening to split with the Episcopalians over Robinson's election.

Dandala, 51, is South African and the former bishop of the Methodist church in southern Africa. He took up his new post Monday.

He said the conference has been hurt by declining membership of churches in Europe, which have traditionally provided 70 percent of the African organization's funding. The conference was established 40 years ago, at the dawn of African independence.

Dandala noted, however, that membership is rising in African churches, particularly among the charismatic and evangelical denominations.

"The church in Africa should strive for self-sufficiency," he said.

He said that the group's 134 member churches would also hold governments responsible for how they treat their citizens and would stress the importance of morality, democracy and good governance.

The conference will hold its general assembly Nov. 22-27 in Yaounde, Cameroon.