After a damning report called on police in Kyrgyzstan to stop targeting gay and bisexual men for violence and extortion, the country's highest Islamic authority promptly sent a reminder that homosexuality is strictly forbidden under Islam.
But the message, delivered in a fatwa by acting Grand Mufti Maksat Hajji Toktomushev in late January, sparked fears that it could be taken at its word -- and put sexual minorities at risk of deadly vigilante justice.
The resulting controversy has drawn in two powerful and influential forces in Kyrgyzstan -- advocates of secular government and the Kyrgyz Muslims Spiritual Directorate headed by Toktomushev.
Last week, representatives of the two, along with a prominent human rights lawyer, debated the potential impact of Toktomushev's religious decree during a roundtable discussion organized in Bishkek by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.
Kyrgyzstan decriminalized homosexuality in 1998, and is generally regarded to have more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality than many of its neighbors. Sexual minorities have officially registered organizations, night clubs, and cafe-restaurants, and gay and lesbian leaders are well known and speak openly.
Nevertheless, a 65-page Human Rights Watch (HRW) report issued on January 29 accused Kyrgyz police of extorting, threatening, arbitrarily arresting, beating, and sexually abusing gay and bisexual men. Homosexuals in Kyrgyzstan, HRW wrote, "already live in fear due to widespread homophobic attitudes, and the police are making a nightmarish situation even worse."
'Kill The Sinner'
But if the effort was intended to improve the situation of sexual minorities, Toktomushev's fatwa issued a day later quickly and harshly blocked the attempt.
The religious decree, posted on the website of the Kyrgyz Muslims Spiritual Directorate, cited a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: "If you see a community of luts [eds.: a reference to the Lut tribe (also Lot), described in the Koran as practicing sodomy] doing their deeds, you should kill the one who is doing it and the one to whom it is being done."
The fatwa concluded by saying, "To sum it up, all Muslims should stay away from [homosexuality] and live by Allah's Shari'a."
During RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service's roundtable discussion, former Kyrgyz Justice Minister Marat Kayipov said that while religious leaders "have the right to express their opinion like anyone else," they should consider the impact of their words on society.
Human rights lawyer Tolekan Ismailova, also in attendance, warned that the fatwa could incite violence against homosexuals and urged the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate.
Ismailova also argued that the fatwa violated the Kyrgyz Constitution, which bans all forms of discrimination. "With this fatwa the acting mufti lambasts all gays and lesbians. [Religious leaders] should instead do some serious thinking about it, and have experts study the issue thoroughly," she said. "They should [focus] on something more useful and worthwhile to all citizens. This action really surprises me."
'Just Explaining Islam'
The Spiritual Directorate's representative at the roundtable, Jorobay Hajji Shergaziev, who heads the directorate's Fatwa Department, defended the religious body's actions. "It is absolutely wrong to say that we are forcing everyone to take actions against [homosexuals.] We just tell people about Islam's direct path. We explain it to people," he said. "We tell everyone about what Islam says, and then people are free to decide if they like [homosexuals'] behavior or not."
Amid the uproar, Toktomushev told journalists in Bishkek last week that his fatwa, which was revised and eventually removed from the Spiritual Directorate's website, was not a call for people to kill anyone. "The phrase we quoted from the prophet belongs to very ancient times, not at all to our days," Toktomushev said. "Back then, it was said to prevent debauchery."
Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry, meanwhile, has cast doubt on the accuracy of the HRW report, saying it doesn't know "how much of the report is true and how much is not" and adding that it was unaware of any complaints of police abuse against homosexuals.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports and contributions from RFE/RL correspondent Merhat Sharipzhan