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Turkish organisations face prosecution for condemning cleric's homophobic remarks

Ankara Bar Association under investigation after filing criminal complaint against Ali Erbas, who says homosexuality 'brings illness'
LGBT rights activists shout slogans during a march on 1 July 2018 in Istanbul (AFP)

Ankara's chief public prosecutor's office has launched an investigation into the Ankara Bar Association, after the professional organisation criticised homophobic comments made by a top cleric.

A number of government officials jumped to the defence of Ali Erbas, head of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs, after he said in his weekly Friday sermon that homosexuality "brings illnesses and corrupts generations."

"Hundreds of thousands of people a year are exposed to the HIV virus caused by this great haram (sin), which passes as adultery in the Islamic literature," he said.

"Let's come and fight together to protect people from this kind of evil."

Though homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been known to take homophobic stances in the past and same-sex relationships are widely considered taboo in the country.

Although gay pride events have taken place in major Turkish cities since 2003, the events have been banned in recent years, nominally for security reasons.

"It is the most natural right for people to speak according to the value system they believe in," said AKP spokesman Omer Celik in a tweet on Monday. "What is abnormal is demanding the contrary," he wrote.

Many supporters of Erbas's comments used the hashtag "Erbas is not alone" on Twitter. Among those was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, who tweeted: "Ali Erbas, who voiced divine judgement, is not alone."

However, the Ankara Bar Association said the cleric's comments "came from ages ago", while the the Izmir Bar Association said it was concerned the statement could encourage new hate crimes.

'Hate speech'

The Turkish Human Rights Association and the Ankara Bar Association made a criminal complaint against Erbas, accusing him of "hate speech" and suggesting his comments could be considered incitement.

On Monday, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported that the Ankara prosecutor's office had launched an investigation into the heads of the Ankara Bar Association on suspicion that they may have insulted Turkish religious values.

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The cleric's comments were also condemned by a number of opposition politicians.

Ankara Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) MP Filiz Kerestecioglu said his sermon was a "khutbah (sermon) of hate".

"Because while we deal with another virus, he talks about the HIV virus, and at the same time he targets these people as if they are guilty," she said, referring to the coronavirus epidemic.

"It is a hate crime to target people and broadcast such a khutbah in a time of need for solidarity."

Some suggested Erbas's comments came in reaction to a social media campaign launched on 23 April to commemorate National Sovereignty and Children's Day, which used the hashtag "LGBTI+ children exist" as a way of highlighting homophobic bullying.