Homosexuals are normal people like all of us and they should be respected, Ahmed Marcouch says. — AFP

SLOTERVAART, Netherlands A harassed gay minority in a conservative suburb in otherwise tolerant Amsterdam has found a guardian angel in the local Muslim mayor.

Ahmed Marcouch, 41, is on a self-appointed mission to end homophobia in Slotervaart, just a stones throw from the capital but light years away from its anything-goes attitude.

To make his point, Mayor Marcouch recently invited Amsterdams annual Gay Pride parade to pass through his constituency when it takes place in August.

'It is necessary to confront this issue, to say that homosexuals are normal people like all of us and that we require them to be respected,' Marcouch told AFP.

Slotervaarts population is mainly of immigrant origin, many of the Muslim faith, like Moroccan-born Marcouch himself who came to the Netherlands in 1979 at age 10.

The suburb has recently been in the news for homophobic incidents, with gays being verbally abused, spat on and harassed.

The community grew particularly restless over gay men using Slotervaarts De Oeverlanden public park as a place to meet and have sex, a practice known as 'cruising'.

After gay lobbyists complained over incidents of homophobic violence, the local council erected signs in the park indicating the spots where gay sex is known to take place, in a bid to avoid any unfortunate encounters.

'For cultural or religious reasons, some people reject homosexuals and compare them to animals,' said Marcouch, who has been Slotervaarts mayor since 2006 and was a former spokesman for Amsterdams mosques.

'They dont see homosexuals as humans. These people can be orthodox Christians, Muslims or immigrants,' he said.

On Marcouchs initiative, the city council recently adopted an action plan for 2009-2011 that allows for the opening of a gay cultural centre.

It will also permit gay associations to give briefings at schools and will take measures to teach mothers in immigrant households about gay rights in the Netherlands.

The mayor has asked municipal police to be extra vigilant about homophobic aggression, and has even organised debates on the topic in mosques to press home his message.

More than 55 per cent of the 45,000 inhabitants of Slotervaart are of immigrant origin and 22.4 per cent are younger than 17 — two groups that Marcouch says are the least tolerant towards homosexuals.

Gays account for about 7.5 per cent of the population of Amsterdam.

'I always say your freedom to be an orthodox Muslim is the same as that of a homosexual to be homosexual,' said Marcouch, himself heterosexual. 'Freedom is guaranteed in the constitution' of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise homosexual marriage, in 2002.

The mayor hopes Slotervaart will become part of the route at Amsterdams annual Gay Pride parade this August. The parade hitherto has been limited to the canals of the historic city centre.

'Some inhabitants are furious and are challenging Mr Marcouch vehemently,' said Dennis Boutkan, a spokesman for homosexual lobby group COC.

Among them is imam Mohamed Adardour of the el-Oumma mosque, who told AFP that gay people are 'impure' and accused the mayor of 'constructing his political career' at the expense of Muslims.

The local Roman Catholic parish has also refused to work with the mayor, according to Marcouch who said the parish told him 'homosexuality is contrary to the laws of nature'.

The mayor is undaunted. 'At least I have opened the issue for discussion,' he said.

Atef Salib, who owns an Arab-themed gay bar in the centre of Amsterdam, says he is encouraged by the mayors efforts and is looking for a spot in Slotervaart to open a dance bar.

'It would be a great step forward,' he said.

But Slotervaart teenager Said retorted 'If a homo bar opens here, it will soon burn down.'