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Last Updated: Monday, 11 June 2007, 06:52 GMT 07:52 UK
Anger as Australian sheikh quits
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali (file photo)
Sheikh Hilali has had an uneasy relationship with the government
Supporters of the controversial spiritual leader of Australia's Muslims claim a government conspiracy has forced him to step down.

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali has been replaced as mufti after a meeting of senior clerics in Melbourne.

The sheikh caused outrage last year when he appeared to blame scantily-clad women for tempting men to rape them.

There has been no official reaction from ministers who are accused of waging a campaign to unseat him.

Supporters of Sheikh Hilali believe the government pressured members of the Islamic community to withdraw their support for him.

They claimed there were threats that organisations that continued to back the controversial sheikh would have their public funding cut.

'Moderate' replacement

Ministers have in the past been highly critical of the former mufti, who has not enjoyed the best of relations with Australia's conservative leadership.

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

He once labelled Prime Minister John Howard a "dictator", and said Muslims were more entitled to live in this country than the descendants of convicts. Modern Australia began life as a British penal colony in the late 1700s.

Mr Howard responded by saying the cleric was a divisive figure who should be sacked.

Sheikh Hilali found himself in serious trouble last year.

In a sermon he compared immodestly-dressed women to "uncovered meat" who were inviting sexual assault.

The Egyptian-born cleric said his remarks in Arabic were misinterpreted and taken out of context.

He denied his comments could incite rape and apologised for them.

After two decades as the spiritual leader of Australia's Muslims, he has stepped down. The sheikh was apparently offered another two-year term as mufti but declined.

Newspapers are asking the question - did he jump or was he pushed?

He has been replaced by Sheikh Fehmi Naji el-Imam, who is seen as a moderate who hopes to be a calming influence in relations between Australia's 350,000 Muslims and the rest of the country.

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