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Last Updated: Friday, 27 October 2006, 07:27 GMT 08:27 UK
Australia Muslim cleric suspended
Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali in a photo dated 31 July, 2006
The cleric insists his comments were taken out of context
Australia's top Muslim cleric has been barred from preaching for up to three months, after comparing immodestly dressed women to "uncovered meat".

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali's comments, suggesting that women who did not wear a headscarf attracted sexual assault, have caused a storm of protest.

Sydney's mosque association said the suspension would give the cleric time to consider the impact of his words.

But Australian PM John Howard said the action was insufficient.

Many people - including some Muslim leaders - have called for the cleric to be dismissed from office.

Sheikh Hilali sparked more controversy on Friday when, asked by reporters if he would resign, he responded: "After we clean the world of the White House first."

His comments, made outside his mosque in Sydney after Friday prayers, prompted a round of applause from supporters.

Apology

Sheikh Hilali's comments about women's dress were delivered in a sermon to some 500 worshippers in Sydney last month, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

SHEIKH TAJ EL-DIN AL-HILALI
Born in Egypt
Aged 64
Imam in Sydney
Appointed mufti of Australia in 1989

But it was not until they were published in The Australian newspaper on Thursday that a wave of anger was unleashed.

"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?" Sheikh Hilali is quoted as asking during the sermon.

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

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

Sheikh Hilali has since apologised for his comments, which he said had been misinterpreted and taken out of context.

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

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

Muslim leaders decided to accept his apology and said that no action would be taken against the cleric.

I think what he's done is so unacceptable
PM John Howard

Mosque Association president Tom Zreika said the board was "basically satisfied with the notion that certain statements made by the mufti [were] misrepresented".

"We felt the three months away would give him time to mull over what's been said," Mr Zreika told reporters.

But many other Australians feel more action should be taken against Sheikh Hilali.

"I believe that unless this matter is satisfactorily resolved by the Islamic community, there is a real worry that some lasting damage will be done," Prime Minister John Howard told Australian radio.

"I think what he's done is so unacceptable and so out of line with not only mainstream Australian opinion but... mainstream Muslim opinion."

"I know how strongly many Islamic community people felt about those comments yesterday, how damaging they saw them in terms of Australian-Islamic relations," added Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward.

"I think the pressure should not be taken off just because he has agreed to be silent for three months."

Sheikh Hilali has courted controversy in the past, claiming in a 2004 sermon that the September 2001 attacks in the US had been "God's work against oppressors".




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Australia's PM urges muslim community to resolve issue




SEE ALSO
Australia's controversial Mufti
10 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Excerpts of al-Hilali's speech
27 Oct 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Australian Muslim to aid hostage
09 May 05 |  Middle East

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