Indonesian officials on Wednesday debunked a Malaysian opposition leader’s claim that last month’s ferocious earthquake and tsunami on Sulawesi island were God’s way of punishing gay people, while the mayor of a devastated town slammed him for lacking common sense.
A day earlier, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had linked the natural disasters that killed at least 2,250 people to the LGBT issue, while questioning Malaysian government officials in parliament about a state-run program to “rehabilitate” members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“LGBT people are everywhere, but how come other places have not been hit by similar disasters?” Mastuki, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Ministry, told BenarNews as he rejected Zahid’s statement that disasters were linked to LGBT behavior.
Hidayat, mayor of Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province that was hit hardest by the Sept. 28 double disaster, said Zahid was entitled to his opinion but called the politician’s remarks thoughtless.
“This is a disaster for us. If it is associated with the existence of the LGBT community, it is far from common sense,” Hidayat told Benar. “Our citizens are now back on their feet again, so such things do not affect them.”
Adrian Amarta, a Palu resident, agreed with Hidayat.
“What does LGBT activity have to do with natural disasters? Nothing, right?” he said.
In Jakarta, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, shrugged off Zahid’s comments by saying that everyone could interpret a disaster based on their beliefs.
“To geologists, an earthquake and tsunami in Palu were caused by the movement of tectonic plates, while to spatial planners the disaster was caused by planning that did not pay attention to disaster mitigation aspects,” Sutopo said.
“Some religious people interpret it as punishment and a warning from God, so that people refrain from committing a sin,” he told Benar.
What Zahid said
Zahid, 65, made the comments while asking questions about Mukhayyam, a program by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) that aims to “reform” gay people in the country with about 20,000 transgenders.
“If we look at the situation in Malaysia, it is worrying, because of what happened in Palu, Indonesia, when an earthquake and tsunami happened,” said Zahid, a deputy prime minister in Malaysia’s previous government who heads the opposition Barisan Nasional bloc.
“It was reported that there were about 1,000 people in their community that were involved in LGBT activities. This resulted in the destruction of the whole area,” he said. “This is God’s punishment.”
He added that he wanted to know about how effective the state program was “so we can avoid God’s punishment toward all Malaysians including those who reject LGBT.”
Last week, Malaysian authorities arrested Zahid and charged him on suspicion of committing a raft of corruption-related offenses, including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering amounting to U.S. $27.56 million.
‘Please respect us’
Before the disaster in Sulawesi, conservative Muslims in Palu had expressed concerns about what they saw as a growing LGBT community in their city, with more than 1,500 people joining a Facebook group called Gay Kota Palu.
Footage from PaluTV, a local television station, showed a female Muslim student saying that LGBT behavior was rampant because the city had grown increasingly secular.
Gay people in Palu are mainly active on social media and sometimes hold secret meetings, said a resident, Muhammad Fadli.
He said one of his friends had joined a gay group whose members came from different parts of Central Sulawesi.
Harlin Apik, a member of the LGBT community in Palu, described the Malaysian politician’s remarks as being uttered out of ignorance.
“I am [fatherless]. I paid for my own education. My mother hopes that I’m doing fine in Palu. I work hard even though I’m part of the LGBT community,” Harlin said.
“I live by the blessings of my mother and God,” he said.
Most LGBT people in Palu live alone and are devoted to their parents.
“Please respect us as disaster victims,” he told BenarNews. “Please do not add to our trauma.”
Tria Dianti in Jakarta contributed to this report.