Peruvian Bishop Luis Bambaren, an influential cleric, has apologized for referring to gay people as “faggots” while discussing the issue of marriage.

The issue seeped into the country's presidential race two weeks ago when Carlos Bruce – vice-presidential candidate for Alejandro Toledo, the leading candidate for the April 10 presidential election – told Peruvian daily El Comercio that gay marriage “is a part of our political agenda.” Bruce, however, has advocated for civil unions, saying marriage remains out of reach.

Bambaren on Monday told reporters that politicians “are just looking for votes when they propose useless things like gay marriage.”

“I do not know why we talk about gays. Let's speak in Creole or Castilian: They're faggots. That's how you say it, right?” he added.

Bruce chided the cleric: “What is wrong is that instead of giving rational arguments he sunk to the level of insults.”

Christian Olivera of the gay rights group Homosexual Movement of Lima went further, describing Bambaren's language as hate speech.

“Bambaren's claim to call gay people faggots is totally unacceptable and constitutes an incitement to hatred,” Olivera said in a statement. “In a country where we should all see ourselves as equals, Bambaren is encouraging violence by using a term that represents what is disgusting and perverse. Despising a community is not an example of what one supposes are Christian values.”

Bambaren later apologized, saying gay people “deserve respect.”

“I ask for an apology for everyone who felt offended,” he said. “It is an offensive word.”