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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2006, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
Australia fury at cleric comments
Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali
The cleric says his comments were taken out of context
Australia's most senior Muslim cleric has prompted an uproar by saying that some women are attracting sexual assault by the way they dress.

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali said women who did not wear a hijab (head dress) were like "uncovered meat".

But he has now apologised for any offence caused by his comments, The Australian newspaper reports.

Leading Muslim women condemned the comments and PM John Howard said the remarks were "appalling".

"The idea that women are to blame for rapes is preposterous," Mr Howard told reporters.

In a statement released on Thursday, Sheikh Hilali said he had been quoting another, unnamed, source and did not mean his words to condone rape.

"I unreservedly apologise to any woman who is offended by my comments. I had only intended to protect women's honour," the statement published in The Australian said.

Born in Egypt
Aged 64
Imam in Sydney
Appointed mufti of Australia in 1989

"Women in our Australian society have the freedom and the right to dress as they choose.

"Whether a man endorses or not a particular form of dress, any form of harassment of women is unacceptable."

A spokesman for Sheikh Hilali earlier said the quote had been taken out of context and referred not to sexual assault, but to sexual infidelity.

The sermon was targeted against men and women who engaged in extra-marital sex and did so through alluring types of clothes, he said.

Ban threat

The leader of Australia's largest Islamic organisation has threatened to ban the cleric from teaching at Lakemba Mosque in Western Sydney.

Tom Zreika, president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, which owns the mosque, said he condemned Sheikh Hilali's words.

"The board [of the LMA] has unlimited powers in respect of his teachings in the mosque. We can do anything that's required to prevent him from teaching in our mosque. If you haven't got the backing of Australia's largest and most established Islamic organisation then you are out on a limb," he is quoted as saying in The Australian.

If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred
Sheikh Hilali

But Mr Zreika said the LMA had yet to fully review the contents of the sermon and Sheik Hilali should be offered the benefit of the doubt until any offence had been proved.

A copy of the cleric's comments delivered in a sermon to some 500 worshippers in Sydney last month during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan was initially published in The Australian.

"If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside... and the cats come and eat it... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat?" he asked.

The uncovered meat is the problem, he went on to say.

"If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred," he added.

Sheikh Hilali also condemned women who swayed suggestively and wore make-up, implying they attracted sexual assault.

"Then you get a judge without mercy... and gives you 65 years," he added.

Sheikh Hilali's critics have previously accused him of praising suicide bombers and claiming the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 were "God's work against oppressors".

High-profile case

The BBC's Nick Bryant in Sydney says the cleric's latest comments are seen as particularly insensitive because Sydney was the scene six years ago of a series of gang rapes committed by a group of Lebanese Australians, who received long prison sentences.

Finance Minister Peter Costello called on Muslims to condemn the speech.

"If you have a significant religious leader like this preaching to a flock in a situation where we've had gang rapes, in a way that seems to make it justifiable, then people that listen to that kind of comment can get the wrong idea," he said.

"They can actually think that it's not as bad as it is."

A number of leading Muslim women have already spoken out against the sermon, describing it as repulsive and offensive.

Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward said the comments could be an incitement to crime.

"Young Muslim men who now rape women can cite this in court, can quote this man... their leader in court," she told Australian media.

She added that the cleric should be deported for inciting rape.

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali apologises for his comments

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