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Last Updated: Monday, 30 October 2006, 08:27 GMT
Sydney Muslim cleric seeks leave
Sheikh Hilali
Sheikh Hilali again apologised for his comments
Australia's top Muslim cleric at the centre of a storm over his comments about immodestly dressed women has asked for "indefinite leave".

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali had asked for leave from his duties at Sydney's main Lakemba Mosque, he said in a statement read on his behalf.

Earlier, he was taken to hospital with chest pains after collapsing.

He again apologised for his comments comparing immodestly dressed women to "uncovered meat".

The pressure of the last couple of days has had an obvious effect on my health and wellbeing
Sheikh Hilali

He said his suggestion that women who did not wear a headscarf attracted sexual assault had been taken out of context and "misinterpreted".

But he conceded the analogy had been "inappropriate and unacceptable for the Australian society and the western society in general".

While Sydney's mosque association had suspended him for three months following the publication of his comments, Sheikh Hilali indicated at the end of last week he would not resign.

'Inappropriate'

On Monday, at a meeting with the Lebanese Muslim Association, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital.

He was said to be in a stable condition but would remain in hospital for at least three days.

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

Outside the hospital, Lebanese Muslim Association Tom Zreika released a statement from the sheikh, which said he had "asked for indefinite leave from my duties at Lakemba Mosque".

"The pressure of the last couple of days has had an obvious effect on my health and wellbeing. I ask the public to give my family and I some privacy, time and space to recover," the statement said.

His comments were delivered in a sermon to some 500 worshippers in Sydney last month, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

But it was not until they were published in The Australian newspaper last week 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 was quoted as asking during the sermon.

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

'Lasting damage'

Despite the three-month suspension imposed by Muslim leaders, Sheikh Hilali has been under increasing pressure to resign as the Mufti of Australia.

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

Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward accused the imam of inciting rape and said he should be thrown out of the country.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Sheikh al-Hilali leaves the mosque in an ambulance



SEE ALSO
Australia Muslim cleric suspended
27 Oct 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia's controversial Mufti
10 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Excerpts of al-Hilali's speech
27 Oct 06 |  Asia-Pacific

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