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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 June, 2004, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
UK Muslim loses top peace award
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Iqbal Sacranie
Iqbal Sacranie: Stood by comments
A leading Jewish interfaith activist has withdrawn a prestigious award to a Muslim leader amid criticism of Israel.

Sir Sigmund Sternberg retracted the award to the Muslim Council of Britain's Iqbal Sacranie days before it was due to be given.

Mr Sacranie, secretary-general of the organisation, had earlier denounced Israeli policies as "ethnic cleansing."

Sir Sigmund's charitable organisation is instead giving the prize money to a hospital in Gaza.

The Sternberg Interfaith Prize recognises work done by individuals to further understanding and break down barriers between Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.

The 25-year-old award is supported by the Three Faiths Forum, an organisation co-founded by Sir Sigmund along with Christian and Muslim representatives.

Dr Zaki Badawi, founding principal of London's Muslim College and one of Britain's leading Islamic theologians is one of the co-founders of the forum.

'Voice of moderation'

According to letters sent between the Sir Sigmund's foundation and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the peace activist had nominated Mr Sacranie for the award after hearing him speak at the home of Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks.

I must confess to finding the statement issued over your name by the Muslim Council absolutely unhelpful, counter-productive even
Sir Sigmund Sternberg
Sir Sigmund had recommended Mr Sacranie for the award because he appeared to represent the "voice of moderation".

But in a Muslim Council of Britain press release dated 21 May, Mr Sacranie denounced military action in Gaza, accusing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government of "murderous leadership" and pursuing the "ethnic cleaning of Palestine".

"What we are seeing is a creeping genocide of the Palestinian people," he said, adding that he believed children had been deliberately targeted by Israeli soldiers.

Sir Sigmund wrote to Mr Sacranie saying he found the statement "absolutely unhelpful, counter-productive even".

Sir Sigmund said that if Mr Sacranie could not disassociate himself from the MCB press release, he would offer the 2,000 prize money instead to a hospital in Gaza.

A wounded Palestinian is carried away
Israeli shootings in Gaza led to the row
In a return letter, Mr Sacranie acknowledged Sir Sigmund's concern over violence in Gaza - but could not retract the comments.

"There is no denying the fact that [in Gaza] there was something very serious, very inhuman and beyond comprehension going on and on in broad daylight," he wrote.

"One can always differ but not shy away from injustice."

Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the MCB, said Sir Sigmund's decision had been "unfortunate".

"We are all for dialogue but that should not mean that criticism of the Israeli government is taboo," said Mr Bunglawala.

"We're disappointed he has taken this step and it may damage interfaith work in this country."

Sidney Shipton, spokesman for the Sternberg Foundation and Three Faiths Forum, said the prize had been withdrawn after complaints made it apparent that Mr Sacranie's recent comments were incompatible with it aims.

"We are neither a pro-Israel nor anti-Israel organisation. But some of Mr Sacranie's wording and language was uncalled for," said Mr Shipton.

"A lot of things are happening [in the Middle East] that we are not happy about.

"But we are trying to mediate between different faiths and we work very closely with both the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Muslim Council of Britain."

"We're working to build bridges and we're very sorry about all of this."




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