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(CNN) —  

Malaysia’s tourism minister has denied the existence of gay people in the country, according to reports in German media.

Ahead of attending the ITB Berlin travel fair, Tourism Minister Mohamaddin Ketapi told German reporters that he wasn’t aware of gay people in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian country.

“I don’t think we have anything like that in our country,” he said, responding to a question as to whether Malaysia would welcome gay travelers, according to German national broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

He also sidestepped a question concerning the safety of LGBT and Jewish travelers in the country, according to the broadcaster.

Mohamaddin later posted a statement on Twitter stating that his response to the reporter’s question referred to the non-existence of specific LGBT-focused tourist campaigns in the country.

He added that the country adopts an open policy in welcoming foreign tourists and would “never (place) any unnecessary obstacles to our guests based on their sexual orientation, religion and cultural practices.”

The statement added that the country has, as a sovereign nation, its own views on both the LGBT community and Israel, and expected other nations to respect the country’s sovereignty.

An aide told Malaysian online news portal Malaysiakini that the comments were made in a personal capacity, but were in line with official Malaysian government policy, which does not recognize the LGBT community.

The aide, who was not named in the report, added: “Tourists coming to Malaysia like any other country are welcome regardless of their creed, sexuality, religion or color.”

Condemnation

Gay rights campaigner Thilaga Sulathireh told CNN that the remarks were “outlandish (and) completely disconnected from reality” but not entirely surprising to hear.

“With the exception of a few politicians, the rest hold varying degrees of discriminatory and exclusionary position on LGBTIQ people and issues, willfully or otherwise.”

She added that it was “also an embarrassingly ignorant comment which carries high socioeconomic costs,” should it impact LGBT tourism to Malaysia.

The country’s stance on homosexuality, as well as its alleged antisemitism – in January this year it tried to ban Israeli athletes from an international swim meet – had been criticized ahead of its participation at ITB Berlin.

German Green party politician Volker Beck had sought to exclude Malaysia from exhibiting at the Berlin event, one of the world’s largest tourism expos, saying that its government has specific policies which are discriminatory to gay people and Jews.

“(A country embracing) homophobia and antisemitism cannot be a partner country,” he said, according to Malaysiakini.

Local news outlet Star Online reported that the deputy president of the opposition Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Mah Hang Soon, condemned Mohamaddin’s comments, saying that they made Malaysia a laughing stock.

He expressed disbelief at the minister’s controversial response to what he said should have been a straightforward question to answer.

“He was asked by a reporter if Malaysia is safe for homosexuals. All he needed to say was that Malaysia is a safe country and every tourist is safe here,” he said.

Ingrained homophobia

Homophobia is ingrained in Malaysian politics and culture, and homosexual sex is illegal throughout Malaysia under colonial era criminal law.

Veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, widely viewed as the successor to current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has been jailed twice on sodomy charges – once by Mahathir’s government, and gay people are routinely punished by public lashing in Terengganu, a Sharia-practicing state to the east of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

An August 2018 raid on one of Kuala Lumpur’s only gay clubs saw around 20 men charged for “illicit behavior,” and came shortly after a brutal attack on a trans woman in a city close to the capital.