Gays must die. That was the message that seemed to come from Sheikh Farrokh Sekaleshfar, an Iranian-born Muslim cleric and medical doctor in Britain who spoke in 2013 at Sanford's Husseini Islamic Center -- located just outside of Orlando, Florida. Now he says his words are being misconstrued.
In a video of his speech that is recirculating now after the shootings the Pulse nightclub, Sekaleshfar said LGBT people should be "compassionately" put to death. "Death is the sentence," Sekaleshfar said. "We know there's nothing to be embarrassed about this. Death is the sentence. ... We have to have that compassion for people. With homosexuals, it's the same -- out of compassion. Let's get rid of them now."
The Islamic scholar was reportedly invited back to speak again this March.
Just 30 miles from where Sekaleshfar appeared to advocate a final soltuion for LGBT people, Orlando has been the site of the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Early Sunday, an armed gunman opened fire on Pulse Nightclub, a gay bar located in the city home to Disney World. Fifty people were left dead, while another 53 were seriously wounded.
The shooter was reportedly Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old who was previously investigated by the FBI for having terrorist sympathies. Prior to the June 12 killing, Mateen phoned 911. On the call, the shooter pledged allegiance to ISIS, authorities have confirmed.
Following the horrific tragedy, Fusionreached out to Sekaleshfar, who referred to Mateen as "an ill and perverted, animalistic entity who has abused an ideology to satiate his sad, twisted desires." "I am totally against the barbaric act of violence that has happened," he said. "In no way at all can such a killing be justified Islamically."
Sekaleshfar further stated that his beliefs were part of an "academic discussion" based upon a "theoretical angle as to what Islam says."
"I never gave the call to a death sentence," he said."I was explaining what Islamic law -- in a country whose people democratically desired Islamic law to be exercised -- states in relation to not homosexuals [sic], but rather in relation to when the act of anal copulation is executed in such an aforementioned public."
In a statement posted to Facebook, Sekaleshfar offered his "sincere condolences to the friends and families of those massacred." He called upon others to condemn the violence.
"I invite my friends to help in supporting the humanitarian needs of the families of the victims of the shooting during such a period and share with their grief," he said. "This is an Islamic value in all cases where people are being oppressed -- whoever they are."
Islam isn't alone in having extremist religious leaders claim to be discussing "death to gays" only academically. Ahead of the Iowa caucuses in the United States, evangelical preacher Kevin Swanson shared the stage with Republican presidential candidates and gave a defense of killing gay people -- but not today, he said, because LGBT people deserve time to repent.
Many Muslim leaders in the U.S. have already voiced their solidarity with the grieving LGBT community. Nihad Awad, who serves as the National Executive Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), referred to the Florida shooting as a hate crime "pure and simple" during a Sunday news conference in Washington D.C.
"For many years, members of the LGBT community have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community against any act of hate crimes, Islamophobia, marginalization and discrimination," he said. "Today, we stand with them shoulder to shoulder."
Imam Azhar was among numerous Islamic leaders who on Sunday in downtown Orlando were seeking ways to help victims and their families. "It is our obligation as a community to be here," he said, "to show solidarity. We are not going to break through fear. We won't let them create a violent image of a faith they have hijacked. We are not going to let that happen."
But he doesn't worry about a growth Islamophobia. "America is too big for that. We are Americans, humanitarians, people of love and understanding. That is why the world envies us."
JACOB OGLES in Orlando contributed to this report.