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 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 09:46 GMT
Mosque in the spotlight
Finsbury Park mosque
The mosque is one of London's largest
Finsbury Park mosque has come under the spotlight several times for alleged links to Muslim terror suspects. BBC Home Affairs reporter Danny Shaw profiles the controversial place of worship in London.

The North London Central mosque, based in Finsbury Park, is inextricably linked with its controversial cleric, or imam, Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri.

He now faces expulsion as cleric of the North London Central mosque by the Charity Commission for making "inflammatory and highly political" speeches at prayers.

The mosque was raided by police on 20 January and seven people were arrested as part of an ongoing anti-terrorist investigation linked to the discovery of highly toxic ricin at a north London address two weeks earlier.

It is situated a corner-kick away from Highbury - the home of Arsenal Football Club - serves a diverse community of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Algerians and Egyptians.

Click here for more details about the mosque

It is one of London's largest mosques, with room for up to 2,000 men and 100 women. Some simply come to worship, others take part in classes in Muslim culture, Arabic and the Koran.

Shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001, and Zacharias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker on 11 September, both visited the mosque for a time.

Controversial figure

There is nothing unusual in attending the mosque - it is open to casual visitors and most Muslims who have lived in the area for some time will probably have been there at some point.

Overall responsibility for the running of the mosque lies with a committee of leading community figures. But as one of the imams, Sheikh Abu Hamza plays a leading role.

Sheikh Abu Hamza
Just one of the imams: Sheikh Abu Hamza
The sheikh, an Egyptian by birth who has lived in the UK for 20 years, has a long history of support for radical Islamic causes and is outspoken in his belief in the implementation of Sharia law.

He is particularly distinctive because of his hook and his single eye, believed to be the results of his fighting with the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.

In 1999, Sheikh Abu Hamza was questioned by Scotland Yard detectives on suspicion of terrorism offences. He was held for several days before being released without charge.

Further scrutiny

The Yemeni authorities had requested his arrest and extradition, claiming he was linked to plots to bomb targets there.

Sheikh Abu Hamza denied the accusations - and he has continued to preach at the mosque ever since.

But in April 2002 the Charity Commissioners suspended him from preaching at the mosque, which is run as a registered charity.

On Friday the commissioners went further and issued a Provisional Removal Order giving him until midnight on Monday to break his ties with the mosque.

The commissioners accused him of making inflammatory sermons and using the mosque for political means.

'Serving religion'

The sheikh reacted angrily and told the Reuters news agency: "I'll just carry on preaching until they stop me physically, by putting me in prison.

"As long as I'm free I'll continue preaching.

"I'm here to serve my religion, to do my duty and to serve the community which has chosen me to do the work."

After the 11 September attacks in the United States, the mosque came under further scrutiny as allegations surfaced that al-Qaeda supporters had attended meetings there.

They included Djamel Beghal, who is accused of plotting terrorist attacks in France, and Feroz Abbasi, one of the Britons detained by the Americans in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He is said to have joined the mosque after turning to Islam.

None of it reflects on the vast majority of those who attend prayers there - law-abiding, peaceful Muslims; but it means their place of worship will remain under the spotlight for some time to come.

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