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Embattled Australian cleric greeted with cheers

Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali
Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, center, mufti of Australia, preached for two hours on Friday, ignoring his promise to not preach after last week's comments.Mark Baker / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Australia's top Islamic cleric, under fire for comparing women who go without head scarves to "uncovered meat," ignored his promise to refrain from preaching and delivered a sermon to the applause of hundreds of supporters Friday.

Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, mufti of Australia since 1989, had apologized last week for any offense he caused to women and then agreed with the Lakemba Mosque's administrators to take three months off from preaching as outraged politicians called for his resignation.

But the 65-year-old native of Egypt appeared for noon prayers at the mosque Friday, Muslims' sabbath, and preached for two hours. Jubilant worshippers carried him on their shoulders.

He later issued a statement saying he would resign if an impartial panel found he incited rape with his "uncovered meat" comment in a Sept. 22 sermon. He also reportedly described women as being soldiers of Satan and said they are responsible for 90 percent of adultery.

A newspaper's report last week on a tape of the sermon brought quick demands across Australia's political parties that al-Hilali be removed as mufti, and Prime Minister John Howard warned Muslims a failure to do so would taint their image.

The controversy has split Muslims, with some groups joining in the demands for al-Hilali to quit. But 34 Islamic groups issued an open letter Thursday accusing the media and political leaders of using the uproar "as an opportunity to vilify the Australian Muslim community."

In his statement Friday, al-Hilali called for a panel of one judge and two lawyers to be named to investigate claims in the media that his September sermon amounted to incitement to commit rape.

"Any person, whatever his position may be, who justifies the crime of rape or encourages it under any circumstances, or whoever degrades Australian women for their dress, is nothing but an ignorant, foolish and crazy person who does not deserve to hold any position of responsibility, be it public or private, in our Australian society," his statement said.

Controversy since he arrived
Al-Hilali said that if the panel found his comments could incite rape, he would retire from all religious work and positions. But, in a hint he might not be entirely serious, he also offered to "place masking tape on my mouth in public places for six months" to "discipline" it.

The cleric said that if the panel exonerated him, he would then make a decision about his future that "will serve democracy" and enhance "coexistence and harmony between the Muslim community and its Australian society away from extremism and racial fanaticism."

Al-Hilali has drawn controversy since he came to Australia as a tourist in 1982 and overstayed his visa. He was ordered deported, but a previous government overrode that decision and allowed him to become a permanent resident in 1990.

The cleric was widely reported as describing the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States as "God's work against the oppressors" and of voicing support for Palestinian suicide bombers. He maintains he was misinterpreted.

In discussing rape in his September religious lesson, al-Hilali reportedly said:

"If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab (head scarf), no problem would have occurred."