ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A suggestion by Turkey’s leading Muslim cleric that homosexuality causes illness has prompted a clash between President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party and the country’s lawyer associations over freedom of expression.
The lawyers condemned the cleric’s comment as harmful to human dignity, but an AKP spokesman said he had simply been speaking up for the values of the Turkish people and accused the lawyers of harbouring a “fascist mentality”.
On Friday, Ali Erbas, head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, said Islam condemns homosexuality because “it brings illnesses and corrupts generations”, adding that it also causes the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that leads to AIDS.
Homosexuality does not cause HIV but gay men who do not practise safe sex have been among the groups most vulnerable to the virus.
“Come and let’s fight together to protect people from such evil,” Erbas said in his weekly sermon.
Unlike in many other Muslim-majority countries, homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey. But homosexuals face widespread hostility and gay pride parades, which used to attract thousands of people from around the Middle East, have been banned in Istanbul in recent years.
The Ankara Bar Association said Erbas’s comments “came from ages ago” and were against human dignity. The Izmir Bar Association said it was concerned the statement could encourage new hate crimes.
On Monday, government officials took to Twitter to defend Erbas using the top-trending hashtag “Ali Erbas is not alone”.
“It is the most natural right for people to speak according to the value system they believe in,” said AKP spokesman Omer Celik on Twitter.
“What is abnormal is demanding the contrary,” Celik added, accusing the Ankara Bar Association of displaying a “fascist mentality” that sought to deprive Erbas of his right to free speech.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, using the same hashtag, said Erbas had voiced the “divine judgment”.
On Monday, the Ankara prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the heads of the Ankara Bar Association on suspicion that they may have insulted Turks’ religious values, the state Anadolu news agency reported.
Human rights groups and the European Union have long accused Erdogan and his government of neglecting, and in some cases of rolling back, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, homosexuals and women.
Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Gareth Jones