KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian minister has decried the presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups at a march celebrating International Women's Day on Saturday, calling it "a misuse of democratic space".
The statement comes amid concerns over growing persecution of the LGBT community in the Muslim-majority country, where sodomy and other same-sex acts are outlawed.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in September last year that Malaysia could not accept same-sex marriage or LGBT rights.
Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the minister in charge of religious affairs, said the government did not recognise LGBT practices as lawful.
"I am very shocked with the actions of certain parties... that misused democratic space in order to defend things that are wrong from the point of view of Islam," he said in a statement posted on his Facebook account on Saturday night.
Other groups condemning the presence of LGBT activists at the march include Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS), a conservative Islamic party, and the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which ruled Malaysia for six decades before being toppled by Mahathir's coalition last year.
Hundreds of people marched through the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Saturday calling for greater women's rights, media reported.
The rally's organisers, led by women's rights groups, said the focus on the LGBT community was a distraction from key demands, such as calls for a dignified minimum wage, a ban on child marriage, and an end to patriarchy and violence based on gender and sexual orientation.
"Disproportionate attention was made to single out and target the presence of LGBT participants," the march's organising committee said in a statement Sunday.
"This borders on incitement to hatred and violence towards a section of Malaysian society who are already at risk and facing multiple forms of discrimination."
The attack on the LGBT community is the latest in a series of incidents in the past few months that civil rights groups say illustrate growing hostility against gay and transgender people in Malaysia.
Mujahid had previously come under fire for ordering the removal of portraits of two LGBT activists from an art exhibition.
Last September, two lesbians were caned for "attempting lesbian sex" in Terengganu, a conservative state in Malaysia's east. Mahathir later denounced the punishment, saying it "did not reflect the justice or compassion of Islam".
Malaysia describes oral and anal sex as against the order of nature. Civil law stipulates jail for up to 20 years, caning and fines for offenders, although enforcement of the law is rare.
Muslims are also governed by state-level Islamic laws, most of which carry provisions outlawing cross-dressing and same-sex acts.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Michael Perry)