Egyptian-born Australian cleric takes leave of absence after meaty remark

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SYDNEY: Battling widespread condemnation and failing health, Australia s beleaguered Islamic leader stepped aside and conceded that his comparison of women without head scarves to uncovered meat was not appropriate in western society.

The 65-year-old Egyptian-born Sunni cleric was admitted to a Sydney hospital Monday after weathering accusations in the media last week that he had blamed immodestly dressed women for rape in a sermon in his Sydney mosque.

Pressure to resign heightened Monday when a national newspaper reported that he had recently used an interview on Arabic radio to endorse militants in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.

Prime Minister John Howard said the man who holds the title of mufti of Australia, the most senior cleric in the nation, might have broken counterterrorism laws which prohibit incitement of violence against Australian soldiers deployed overseas.

Australia, a staunch ally in the US-led war on terror, has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.Al-Hilali, who has survived four strokes and recently underwent double heart bypass surgery, fainted at a meeting with mosque administrators Monday and was taken by ambulance to hospital for observation.

He issued a statement later, saying he had taken indefinite leave from his duties at Lakemba Mosque, the largest in Australia.

In due course, I will take the necessary decision that will lift the pressures that have been placed on our Australian Muslim community and that which will benefit all Australians, he said in the statement.

Some media have speculated that the statement signals the cleric will quit. Mosque administrator Toufic Zreika said he did not know whether the Al-Hilali intended to resign.

What s happened in the last few days has really taken it s toll on him, his family, his health and I think he s just had enough, said Zreika, president of the Lebanese Muslim Association which runs the mosque.

Al-Hilali had rejected calls for his resignation since a newspaper reported last week that he compared women who do not wear head scarves to uncovered meat in a sermon at the mosque.

In his statement Monday, Al-Hilali conceded the analogy had been a mistake. I confess that this analogy is inappropriate and unacceptable for the Australian society and the Western society in general, he said.

But he said he had a duty to advise Muslim women to adhere to the strict Islamic dress code and that his sermon, apparently secretly tape recorded by a critic, was not intended for the general Australian public.

I am deeply saddened and distressed by the acts of some devious groups which lurk in the dark watching me and who cannot tolerate the moderate, balanced way which I adopt to advocate for women s issues, national harmony and coexistence, he said, without identifying the groups.

Al-Hilali described women as cherished pearls and that rape of a woman an abominable crime that had no justification.

Female Muslims have been among the most vocal in calling for the cleric s resignation over references in his sermon to women being soldiers of Satan who were responsible for 90 percent of adultery.

Howard warned Australia s 300,000 Muslims that Al-Hilali s continuing leadership would damage their reputation among their 20 million fellow Australians, who are predominantly Christian.

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