By Rachel Savage and Hugo Greenhalgh
LONDON, April 14 (Openly) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said prayer for someone exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity will not be criminalised in any conversion therapy ban, as LGBT+ activists and conservative Christians clash over the issue.
Johnson said that "appropriate pastoral support (including prayer)" would remain legal, in a letter to the Evangelical Alliance, a conservative Christian lobby group representing 3,500 churches, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I take freedom of speech and freedom of religion very seriously," he wrote in the letter, dated March 27 and which became public this week.
"Like you, I do not want to see clergy and church members criminalised for normal non-coercive activity."
Britain's ruling Conservative Party has come under increasing pressure from LGBT+ activists to fulfil a pledge made in 2018 to ban practices that aim to change or suppress someone's sexual orientation or gender identity.
The United Nations has called for conversion therapy to be banned globally. Brazil, Ecuador and Malta have nationwide bans, Germany outlaws it for minors and it is illegal in parts of Spain, Canada, Australia and the United States.
LGBT+ campaigners and politicians expressed concerns on Wednesday that Johnson's letter could mean the government granting religious exemptions in any proposed ban, despite previous promises to include religious practices.
"LGBT people of faith have been courageous in speaking about the harms caused by conversion therapy," Liz Barker, an opposition lawmaker of Britain's upper house of parliament, said in emailed comments.
"Johnson's letter shows that the Conservatives have forsaken those brave people, and given their abusers a green light to continue. This is shameful. Only people of faith who seek to abuse LGBT people have anything to fear from a complete ban."
A spokeswoman for the government said in emailed comments that it was fully committed to advancing LGBT rights.
"We have made clear that we will take action to stamp out conversion therapy in this country. We have engaged with a variety of stakeholders as part of this process and will bring forward proposals shortly," she said in emailed comments.
Jayne Ozanne, a gay evangelical Christian who resigned from the government's now-disbanded LGBT Advisory Panel last month over delays to the planned ban, called on the government to listen to LGBT+ survivors of conversion therapy.
"I think the government are appeasing evangelicals, without understanding the harm that they're doing," she said by phone.
"They've been heavily lobbied by them, but what they haven't done is engage in any depth with the survivors and victims of this abhorrent practice."
The Evangelical Alliance did not respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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