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Last Updated: Friday, 12 January 2007, 12:25 GMT
Australia cleric in convicts jibe
Sheikh Hilali with flowers outside his mosque in Sydney in November 2006
Sheikh Hilali has apologised for his comments in September
Australia's top Muslim cleric at the centre of a storm last year over his comments about immodestly dressed women has sparked a new furore.

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali said Muslim Australians had more right to live in the country than white Australians whose ancestors arrived as convicts.

His comments, made to local television as he visited Egypt, were laughed off by Prime Minister John Howard.

But some ministers suggested the Sheikh should leave the country.

'Fear card'

Sheikh Hilali, the Sydney-based Mufti of Australia, said on Egyptian TV that Muslims were more entitled to be in Australia than those with a convict ancestry.

"The Anglo-Saxons arrived in Australia in shackles," he said. "We (Muslims) came as free people. We bought our own tickets. We are entitled to Australia more than they are".

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

He also hit out at the anger in Australia surrounding his comments last September in which he compared scantily-dressed women to "uncovered meat".

He insisted he was not justifying rape and that his comments had been taken out of context, and suggested domestic politics was at the core of the controversy.

"As we would say in Egypt, they play the fear card to keep the Muslim community down, and they start with me because I am known in that community," he said.

'Ill-advised'

Mr Howard said the Sheikh's latest remarks would bring a "wry smile to the face of Australians who don't actually feel the least bit offended that many of our ancestors came here as convicts.

"It's almost a badge of honour for many Australians," he added.

However, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the Sheikh should respect Australia or stay away.

"I remind Sheikh al-Hilali that if he doesn't like Australia, our heritage or our way of life, he doesn't have to come back," she said.

Federal opposition leader Kevin Rudd said the Muslim cleric appeared to be "several sandwiches short of a picnic".

Muslim leaders in Australia appeared to be distancing themselves from his remarks.

Keysar Trad, head of the Islamic Friendship Association and a close friend of the sheikh, said some of his comments were "ill-advised".




SEE ALSO
Sydney Muslim cleric seeks leave
30 Oct 06 |  Asia-Pacific
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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