(Children run past a mural painting of an Aids ribbon at a school in Khutsong Township, 74 km (46 miles) west of Johannesburg, August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)

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.