Anti-gay religious group’s funding for Uganda program pulled pending investigation

Gay rights activists,take part in a protest outside Uganda House in Trafalgar Square, in London December 10, 2 …The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) used to have a pretty low profile, surfacing occasionally in larger policy discussions on how aid money should be spent.

But it seems that ever since Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives took power, CIDA's found itself regularly in the crosshairs of controversy or scandal.

The appointment of ex-cop Julian Fantino as minister responsible for CIDA raised some eyebrows on the heels of former minister Bev Oda's ignominious exit over dubious expense claims.

[ Related: Bev Oda: So long, and thanks for all the orange juice ]

Now word that the main conduit for Canada's $5-billion international aid budget gave more than half a million dollars to an anti-gay religious group for a program in Uganda has turned the spotlight on CIDA once more.

The Canadian Press reports Fantino, former Toronto police chief and head of the Ontario Provincial Police, has been forced to order a freeze on payments to Crossroads Christian Communications, which received $544,813 ostensibly to dig water wells, build latrines and promote hygiene in the African country.

The evangelical group is best known for TV shows like 100 Huntley Street but has also operated relief and development programs for three decades.

But a news report last week revealed Crossroads' web site carried a list of "sexual sins" that included homosexuality and lesbianism. It urged sinners to repent, adding "God cares too much for you (and all of his children) to leave such tampering and spiritual abuse unpunished."

The section disappeared last Tuesday after CP contacted the organization.

The aid recipient's anti-gay stance is considered especially sensitive because of homophobic attitudes that prevail in Uganda. Gay-rights advocates have been assaulted and murdered. The government there is considering a law that would make homosexual activity punishable by death. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has condemned the proposed law.

In an email to CP, Crossroads spokeswoman Carolyn Innis defended its position on homosexuality and the Ugandan aid program.

"Crossroads' views on sexuality are informed by our Christian faith and values," she said, adding projects that receive CIDA money do not include evangelical work and focus on specific goals.

"It has not been a practice of Crossroads to influence matters of policy in countries in which we are completing relief or development projects."

Critics have been leery of the Conservatives' approach to foreign aid, which some see as aimed at fulfilling ideological goals and cementing ties with important voter constituencies.

Last month, La Presse said a report by the Canadian Institute on humanitarian crisis and aid found CIDA funding for Christian groups rose at a higher rate than for secular aid organizations.

"The lion's share of this increase went to a dozen NGOs in Western Canada, which received $50 million in 2010, against $29 million five years earlier - an increase of 72 per cent," the story said, according to a translation on an anti-Conservative blog.

"However, in addition to their humanitarian mission, these NGOs are openly dedicated to evangelization."

Harper defended the choice of aid recipients last month, CP said.

"We consider the efficiency of projects," Harper replied during a Montreal news conference. "[We] do not consider the religion of groups promoting these projects."

Baird spokesman Rick Roth also distanced itself from Crossroads.

"Our government does not endorse these particular views," Roth told CP via email.

"Canada's views are clear — we have been strongly opposed to the criminalization of homosexuality or violence against people on the basis of their sexual orientation."

[ Related: CIDA rapped for partisan letters from cabinet minister ]

CIDA has also come under scrutiny because of the Conservatives' apparent decision to adjust foreign-aid policy to hew more closely to its overseas business agenda.

The Globe and Mail reported last November that Fantino signalled in a speech that CIDA increasingly would partner with Canadian companies doing business abroad.

“The private sector is the driver of long-term economic growth globally for us," Fantino said. "And without an increasing presence in the developing world, we will not achieve the development goals we’re committed to [achieving] at CIDA.”