SINGAPORE (AP) - A former Methodist bishop has called for greater understanding and respect for gays in Singapore, where recent public debate has questioned whether homosexuality should be decriminalized.
"We know that the differences will exist, we only ... plead for mutual respect and not for condemnation," Rev. Dr. Yap Kim Hao, who in 1968 became the first Asian bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia, said at a Thursday night dialogue on homosexuality and the church.
The dialogue, believed to be the first between the mainstream Christian church and the gay community in Singapore, was organized by the gay social outreach arm of the nondenominational Free Community Church. It was attended by more than 350 people, including representatives from major Christian denominations and members of the general public.
The dialogue follows rare public debate about homosexuality in Singapore. Earlier this month, the city-state's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, questioned the country's longtime ban on gay sex, saying the government should not act as moral police. His comments set off debates in newspapers and online forums.
Yap, who is now the Free Community Church's pastoral adviser, has said he believes he has been called by God to minister to gays, and is aware his views conflict with the conservative mainstream church in Singapore.
"Even though we disagree, we need to respect the humanity," Yap told The Associated Press.
Participants in the forum also discussed interpretations of Biblical references to homosexuality, and how the church can pastor homosexuals. Panelists stressed that the church and policymakers in Singapore must realize there are real people behind the issue.
"At the end of the day, we need to know that there is a human face to all this and then we learn to adapt our strategy differently," said Tan Kim Huat, dean of studies at Singapore's Trinity Theological College.
But some audience members remained skeptical or indifferent to the calls for greater tolerance. One man took the microphone to compare homosexuality to bestiality.
Still, Yap was pleased that so many from the mainstream church had attended the dialogue.
"They came in some significant numbers to hear an alternative point of view. We have heard them condemning, but this is the first time they're coming to hear the other partisan view," he said.
Under Singapore law, gay sex is deemed "an act of gross indecency," punishable by a maximum of two years in jail. Authorities have banned gay festivals and censored gay films, saying homosexuality should not be advocated as a lifestyle choice.
Despite the official ban on gay sex, there have been few prosecutions.
Penal Code amendments proposed last year would decriminalize oral and anal sex for adult heterosexuals, but retain the ban on gay sex. That decision was applauded by the National Council of Churches in Singapore. The amendments are scheduled to be debated in Parliament later this year.
The issue returned to the spotlight earlier this month when Lee questioned the gay ban, prompting a flurry of responses by lawmakers and the public.
"Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's recent comments about liberalizing laws regarding homosexuality have got my family and me very concerned," citizen Jonathan Cheng wrote to the Straits Times Forum pages. "Homosexuals lead a promiscuous and hedonistic lifestyle. What else can you expect when you do not have children to live for or be in a loving and committed relationship?"
Most of Singapore's 4.5 million people are Buddhist, followed by Christians. The nation's other main religion, Islam, also forbids homosexuality.
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