SINGAPORE (Reuters) - One of the largest crowds ever recorded in Singapore for a civil society gathering turned out on Saturday at a gay rights rally, against a backdrop of noisy opposition from religious groups in the run-up to the event.
An estimated 26,000 people descended on Hong Lim Park for the "Pink Dot", an annual event since 2009 that aims to discourage discrimination against same-sex couples.
Sex between two men is illegal in Singapore and punishable with up to two years in prison, though it is rarely enforced. The law, based on English texts from the island's colonial period, makes no mention of lesbians.
The rally, which saw people dress in pink for a picnic and concert in the park and then gather in a circle to form a "pink dot", has previously taken place without much visible protest.
However this year, some Muslim and Christian groups came together to call on their followers to wear white to show their opposition to the event and what they perceive as growing acceptance of homosexuality in Singapore.
"This year the extent of the negativity has saddened us quite a bit," said Paerin Choa, one of Pink Dot's organizers.
"What happened over the past few weeks goes to show that discrimination is very much still alive in Singapore."
The rally comes amid growing anger from Singaporeans over issues ranging from immigration and rising living costs to gay rights - all in a country where dissent is actively discouraged and political gatherings require a permit regardless of how many people are involved.
Some Muslims were particularly angry that the event took place on the eve of Ramadan and many posted photos of them wearing white to evening prayers to a "wearwhite" Facebook page.
Some Christian groups have called on the government to take a clearer stand on the issue and reinforce the legal position that sex between two men is outlawed
"Pink Dot's agenda goes against our national interests," said Lawrence Khong a senior pastor at the 10,000-strong Faith Community Baptist Church.
"If they are allowed to continue, the day will come when we will no longer recognize the Singapore that we and our founding fathers have worked so hard to build,"
Pink Dot, which describes itself as a "movement" rather than a protest, has seen a higher turnout every year since it began in 2009 and now has big name sponsors including Goldman Sachs Inc and BP PLC.
Janice Koh, a member of parliament unaffiliated to any political party, said the government will find it difficult to steer a course between the competing groups over the issue.
"It will become more challenging for them to keep the peace," said Koh, who attended and supported the event.
"We are looking towards the political leadership to be neutral and to keep secular spaces open for everyone to practice their various beliefs or values."
Reporting by Rachel Armstrong; Editing by Tom Heneghan