A gay Muslim last week came out to a group of Muslim scholars at an AIDS conference who had branded homosexuality “unIslamic” and “evil” days beforehand.

Suhail AbualSameed spoke openly about his sexuality to an audience of ulama, distinguished Islamic scholars, at the International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS in Johannesburg, South Africa, IRIN PlusNews has reported.

Mr AbualSameed, a Jordanian living in Canada, said: “As a gay Muslim, I feel unsafe, unloved and unrespected in this space.

“Were I to become HIV-positive, the first thing I would lose is my Muslim community. I couldn’t come to you guys for support.

“I wish you did not refer to gays with the (Arabic) words ‘shaz’ and ‘luti’ – perverts and rapists – because we are not.”

Two men in keffiyas, the gingham headcloth worn by men in many Muslim countries, waved their arms to silence him but the chairman nodded for him to continue.

The consultation brought together Muslim community leaders, academics, doctors, relief workers and HIV-positive activists to rethink the Islamic response to HIV and AIDS.

One key issue was HIV prevention among hard-to-reach vulnerable groups like sex workers, street children, intravenous drug users, and men who have sex with men.

Jaffer Inamdar, the HIV-positive founder and programme manager of the Positive Lives Foundation in Goa, India, told IRIN/PlusNews:

“Lots of sex, drugs and gay activity take place during the high season from September to April in this popular tourist destination.

“Harsh, condemning language make them [gays] run away, hide and continue to spread HIV.”

Homosexuality is forbidden and considered a crime in most Islamic countries.

Six officially Islamic countries (Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and the 12 northern states of Nigeria) invoke sharia, the Islamic religious law, and maintain the death penalty for consensual same-sex relations, according to human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Other countries punish homosexuality with fines, jail or lashes, coupled with social stigma and blaming Western culture for introducing gay lifestyles.

Mr AbualSameed said afterwards that he had feared the audience’s reaction:

“I saw their gaze, their body attitude, and my memory told me there could be a physical reaction.”

But he added: “Afterwards, veiled women, bearded men, the most religious types, came to me and apologised if they had said something offensive, if they had made me feel unloved or unsafe.

“This is us: our culture is intimate, warm, based on relationships. When I outed to my family, they did not turn on me.”

The following morning, conference spokesperson Willem van Eekelen read their collective statement, saying that although Islam does not accept homosexuality, Islamic leaders would try to help create an environment in which gay people could approach social workers and find help against AIDS without feeling unsafe.

“This first time ever that a high-level religious forum has talked, acknowledged and accepted gays,” said AbualSameed.

“This will open the door to talks with the Muslim gay community and help other gay Muslims to come out in a safer space.”

To see theologians from Egyptian and Syrian universities, and imams from India, Sudan and Pakistan defy official Islamic homophobia is “definitively a first,” said sheikh Abul Kalam Azad, chairman of the Masjid (mosque) Council for Community Advancement, in Bangladesh.

“Homosexuality is a sin but we should not be cruel. They [gays] suffer a lot in the Muslim world.”

Sudanese sheikh Mohamed Hashim Alhakim, who runs the S-Smart Training and Consultancy Centre in Khartoum, which also runs AIDS awareness programmes said: “I used to be very hard against homosexuals and sex workers.

“But I learned to respect their humanity. I advise them to change, but if they are going to continue they must practice safe sex so they don’t harm themselves and their partners.”

During the weeklong consultation, AbualSameed, who is coordinator of the Newcomer/Immigrant Youth Programme at the Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto, had endured homophobic statements.

Just the day before, one scholar had ranked homosexuality with bestiality and adultery as evils to avoid.

“The harshness of the comments made me passionate; I had to do something for my own identity and dignity, and of other gay Muslims,” said AbualSameed.