MARSEILLE, France — Growing up in Algeria, Shaira had almost everything a young man could wish for. But he also had a big secret.
In a land where homosexuality is still a crime and a sin, he was forced to live a secret life, hiding that he was gay from everyone — even his closest family.
Shaira, 26, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety, hasn’t been back to Algeria since he went to study in France four years ago. His family still has no idea of his sexuality.
Sahira has sought help from a gay imam from Algeria who is working with a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) association in Marseille. The Le Refuge group says it has helped 26 gays find shelter and start a new life in the ancient port city in the past year. Some eventually go back to their families.
Homosexuality is a criminal offense in much of the Middle East — punishable by imprisonment or, in countries like Saudi Arabia, by death. In Algeria, homosexual acts are punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine.
Islam considers homosexuality a sin. Men having sex with each other should be punished, the Quran says, but it doesn’t say how — and it adds that they should be left alone if they repent. The death penalty verdict instead comes from the Hadith, or accounts of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The accounts differ on the method of killing, and some accounts give lesser penalties in some circumstances.
The Islamic State group (IS) has taken this to an extreme. Videos the group has released show masked militants dangling allegedly gay men over the sides of buildings by their legs and dropping them head-first or tossing them over the edge. It is believed that at least three dozen men in Syria and Iraq have been killed by IS over accusations of sodomy.
MORE: Islamic State group publicly killing gays in Syria and Iraq
Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed is an Algerian-born imam who now works in Marseille and runs an association of French Muslims and gays. He has known the discrimination faced by the young people who come to Le Refuge for help.
“Personally I have received quite a lot of threats, but I saw more people come to encourage me … saying you are an embodiment of real Islam,” Zahed said.
The local head of Le Refuge in Marseille, Christophe Chausse, says the group tries to counsel young gays about how to cope with the constant conflict between their sexuality and their religion.
“For them, there is a real dilemma between — ‘I am or I feel homosexual’, and ‘I have my religion, my faith which prohibits it, so I cannot live this homosexuality,’” Chausse said.
Shaira cries as he talks about this conflict that he battles every day.
“Everybody is telling me — ‘you are gay, you are Muslim and this is not normal,’” Shaira said. “But I feel that I have the same right to have a religion as everybody else. Even if I’m gay.”