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Australian prime minister regrets inviting anti-gay cleric

| Friday, June 17, 2016, 7:30 a.m.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's prime minister said Friday he would not have invited a senior imam to a multi-faith dinner if he had been aware of the Muslim cleric's anti-gay preaching.

Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday became the first Australian prime minister to host an iftar —the meal at which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast at sunset.

Among the 75 mostly Muslim guests at the prime minister's official Sydney residence was Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman, president of the Australian National Imams Council.

The Australian newspaper reported Alsuleiman had said in a sermon uploaded on to social media in 2013 that homosexual acts “are evil actions that bring upon evil outcomes to our society.”

Turnbull said he became aware of Alsuleiman's comments during the course of the dinner when a journalist from The Australian contacted the prime minister's media team. Turnbull said he then condemned those comments at the dinner and “encouraged” Alsuleiman “to reflect very deeply on his remarks.”

“Had I known that the sheikh had made those remarks, he would not have been invited to the Iftar,” Turnbull told reporters.

“I regard as unacceptable and I will always condemn any remarks which disrespect any part of our community, whether it is on the basis of their sexuality, their gender, their race, their religion,” he added.

Alsuleiman later said in a statement he condemned the vilification and oppression of any group of people based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, or any other criteria.

“Islam's position on the matter is clear like many other major religions, however, Islam espouses there is no compulsion in religion and diversity is the norm,” his statement said. ‘As Australians we have and will always show mutual respect for one another.”

The invitation was an embarrassment for the conservative government that is campaigning for re-election on July 2 and has been criticized for refusing to allow its own lawmakers vote to allow gay marriage.

It happened two days after British cleric Farrokh Sekaleshfar left Sydney shortly before his visa was cancelled over anti-gay comments including advocating capital punishment for homosexual acts in public. Turnbull said he would investigate why Sekaleshfar had not been placed on a watch list that would have alerted authorities to his visa application.

A weekend gun attack by an American-born Muslim on a gay nightclub in Florida that left 49 dead has focused Australia's election campaign on the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

Publicity around recent anti-gay sentiments has also brought attention to the government and opposition's competing policies on how Australia should decide whether same-sex marriage should be legal. If the government is re-elected, it plans to hold a plebiscite this year that would allow voters to decide.

If the center-left Labor Party opposition were elected, it would dispense with such a public vote and make the Parliament decide within Labor's first 100 days in power. Polls show that the public overwhelmingly supports a plebiscite.

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