The Dutch government has announced that it is determined to fight discrimination against gay and lesbian people both at home and abroad.

Last month the Dutch Cooperation Development minister, Bert Koenders, said in a letter to the Parliament that in its foreign relations “the Netherlands will promote equal rights for gays as much as possible.”

The minister stressed that in its bilateral relations the country, which last year amounted to 4.2 billion euros in foreign aid, it will ask the countries it deals with to decriminalise homosexuality.

According to AFP, half of the African and Asian countries that the Netherlands currently supports through development aid plans still consider homosexuality as an offence and punish gay people, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment.

The centre-left government also announced it would also tackle rising homophobia at home, by investing money in programmes mainly aimed at the resident Muslim community.

The Dutch minister of Education, Ronald Plasterk, presented a 2.5 million euro plan for the period 2008-2011 to promote respect and equal treatment for gay people.

The money would be used in those ethnic minorities who “follow a more orthodox religious lifestyle” where “socially the acceptance is not automatic,” targeting particularly Muslim students in schools, sport clubs and neighbouring associations.

Gay rights activists welcomed the government’s new stance, particularly on its foreign relations policy.

Frank Van Dalen, the leader of gay rights movement COC, told AFP: “never before has a government done so much for the emancipation of gays.”

He added however that more money had to be spent at home.

“According to surveys 48 percent of the population is shocked by two men kissing and 75 percent of people of immigrant origin believe that a teacher should hide his gay orientation,” Van Dalen said.

The Netherlands was the first country in the world to institute same-sex marriage and allow homosexual partners to adopt children, but has recently experienced a series of violent attacks on gay people, including tourists.

In 2006 a “gay kiss test” was introduced by the Dutch government, to test asylum seekers’ liberal attitudes as a basis for entry into the country.

The move, which sparked strong reactions from the Muslim communities, was intended, in the words of a spokesman from the parliament’s immigration committee, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, to “help prepare people for open minded attitudes on issues such as homosexuality.”