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Saturday, 8 February, 2003, 13:39 GMT
Banned cleric leads prayers
Abu Hamza outside Finsbury Park Mosque
Abu Hamza: Flanked by minders

Controversial Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri has led prayers again outside the London mosque where he has been banned from preaching - and the media were there again in force to see what would happen.
If the opponents of Sheikh Abu Hamza thought his removal from Finsbury Park Mosque would silence his sermons, then they were wrong.

Because of your effort the message is now stronger than ever - millions will hear our message

Sheikh Abu Hamza
Because the man regarded by many elements of the media as public enemy number one returned to lead prayers outside of the mosque closed since it was raided by the Metropolitan Police in January.

Last week the Charity Commission formally removed Abu Hamza from his post as an officer of the mosque, citing his consistently inflammatory comments.

But if anything, Abu Hamza had secured his audience as a large number of journalists came along to see whether or not he would turn up and lead prayers for those who still regard him as their imam.

Locked doors

By 1pm, some 80 worshippers were outside the locked doors and the police closed off a side road to allow the prayers to take place on the tarmac.

A call to prayer
Supporters: Call to prayer
Mohammed Kasim, 45, a regular for 13 years, wanted to know why it was still closed.

"Who has done this? Is it the trustees, the government or the Metropolitan Police?" he asked.

"This must not go on. Our elders built this mosque inch by inch, raising every single penny themselves."

Mr Kasim said he was attending the prayers in support of the mosque but he also regarded Abu Hamza as a "great Muslim scholar".

"He talks about the most important issues of these times," he said.

"People are allowed their own opinions of Sheikh Hamza. But people need to try and understand what he is saying."

Flanked by minders

While people like Mr Kasim may support Abu Hamza, mosque trustees take a different view.

WHO IS ABU HAMZA?
Born in Egypt
Former Soho bouncer
Became British citizen in 1980s
Abdul Kadir Burkatulla, the only trustee to speak publicly, has said the mosque will remain closed while it is cleaned of "physical and spiritual filth". Abu Hamza had bullied other trustees and would not be allowed back, he promised.

But nevertheless, Abu Hamza arrived flanked by eight men hiding their faces with scarves and hats.

He walked quietly and calmly to the plastic sheeting which formed the prayer area in the road.

"Thank you for coming," he told those gathered. "Because of your effort the message is now stronger than ever. Millions will hear our message."

Abu Abdullah, a close aide of the sheikh, stood first to address the media.

"I'm disgusted by you people," he told the journalists over the heads of the kneeling congregation.

"What kind of people are you for mocking a man because he has no hand? You mock my brother because he has no eye. Now you persecute him because he speaks the truth."

Space shuttle theory

For his part, Abu Hamza used his Friday lecture to expound on his theory of why the space shuttle disaster was a message from God.

"We're not gloating about the space shuttle disaster," he said. "These matters are severe and we have to reflect on them. We're not gloating, we are so upset and disturbed that we have to see this kind of clear message."

Turning to his removal from the mosque, he said: "The charity commissioner can go to hell with his ideology. At the end of the day he will be judged by God. This is not the first mosque to be closed by a tyrant."

The closure of the mosque (by the trustees not the Charity Commission) and the actions of its congregation in protecting it had made it world famous, he claimed. Those assembled with him this Friday were on the right path in the eyes of God.

And then it was over. Abu Hamza, surrounded by his aides, made his way with some difficulty through the cameras and headed for the nearby Muslim Welfare House. The cameras were kept out and the gates closed by his followers.

Nobody stopped him entering - but there are strong indications that many connected to the centre would not have been overly happy with his presence.

The Muslim Welfare House has a long record of working on inter-faith and cross-community relations. The local MP Jeremy Corbyn and a local vicar were among the guests at the previous week's Friday prayers. It's the kind of work that goes unreported.


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17 Jan 03 | UK
24 Jan 03 | England
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