Angry homophobes took to the streets of two Iranian cities on Friday (11 May) to protest rumors of a gay pride event during next week's Eurovision Song Contest in neighboring Azerbaijan.
The kitsch European pop tournament will begin in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, on 22 May, with the grand final held on 26 May.
In January, gay scene website nighttours.com suggested that a gay pride could take place in the city during the lead-up to Eurovision, but removed the article a few days later.
Tensions over the event continued last week as crowds of anti-gay demonstrators reportedly gathered outside the Azerbaijan embassy in the city of Tabriz after Friday prayers, shouting slogans such as 'Azerbaijan is a Muslim country and it is not a place for fags' and 'Aliev go to hell', referring to the country's president.
Iranian news agency JoopeA reported that the crowds were called upon to protest by Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari, a prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric and a personal representative of Iran's Supreme Leader.
The imam had previously denounced the leadership of the Republic of Azerbaijan and warned the Baku government to cancel the gay parade or expect widespread demonstration and public anger.
Crowds shouting similar homophobic rhetoric also met in Astara, the nearest city in Iran to the Azerbaijan border, around the same time on Friday.
However, a counter protest was held outside the Iranian embassy in Baku, with people demanding Iran stop interfering in Azerbaijan's affairs, saying 'Iranian Islam is not Islam' and 'Iran sends terrorists to our country'.
Azerbaijan has mostly ethnic Azeri Shi’ite Muslims, who make up over 30% of the population of the neighbouring Islamic Republic of Iran.
Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly denied the rumors of any gay pride parade.
Gay activist Rusian Balukhin, who runs Azerbaijani gay.az site, stated that ‘among Baku’s gays and lesbians there is no one even dreaming of demonstrations or parades’.
He added that staging an event like that would be irresponsible and counterproductive given the current, rather intolerant social climate for Azerbaijan's LGBT community.
Last year, in an interview with Gay Star News contributor Paul Canning in LGBT Asylum News, Rusian Balkukhin stated that while homosexuality is legal in Azerbaijan, it is not yet tolerated and that the community needs basic psychological help, rather than full blown gay rights campaigns, at this stage.
Hossein Alizedah of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Comission (IGLHRC) speculated that the critique from Iran ‘over the possible gay-parade in Baku is used as 'a hook' by Tehran to leverage more public pressure on the Azeri government’ to loosen its ties with Israel.
Other experts have pointed out the roots of the conflict go back at least to 2011, when the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev in his New Year’s speech stated that he would like to be a leader for Azeris around the world, to which Iran responded by stating the Azerbaijan was a former part of Iran.
Experts also note the tension between a secular Republic of Azerbaijan versus an Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as disputes over the marine boundaries in the Caspian Sea which is rich in oil and gas resources.