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Controversial Australian Muslim Cleric Steps Down

A controversial Australian Muslim cleric who caused outrage last year when he blamed scantily clad women for tempting men to rape them, has been replaced as the country's mufti, or spiritual leader. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports the cleric's backers are accusing the Australian government of forcing his ouster.

Supporters of Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali say the government has pressured members of the Islamic community to withdraw their support from him. They claim that organizations backing the sheikh received threats that their public funding would be cut.

So far, the government has not reacted to these allegations. But, in the past, it has been highly critical of Sheikh al-Hilali.

The former mufti once described conservative Prime Minister John Howard as a dictator and said Muslims were more entitled to live in Australia than the descendants of the convicts who were among Australia's first settlers in the late 1700s. Mr. Howard responded by saying the cleric was a divisive figure who should be dismissed.

Waleed Aly, an Islamic leader in southern Australia, says interference by politicians in Muslim matters has not been helpful.

"Right from the start, it's been asserted that any attempt to remove him would be bowing to, particularly, the pressure applied by the federal government, and it's been clear that the involvement of the federal government in this matter hasn't particularly been helpful for that reason," Aly said.

Sheikh al-Hilali found himself in serious trouble last year when he compared immodestly dressed women to uncovered meat who invited sexual assault.

The Egyptian-born cleric denied his comments could incite rape and apologized for them. He said his remarks in Arabic were misinterpreted and taken out of context.

Now, the sheikh has stepped down after two decades as the spiritual leader of Australia's Muslims. And newspapers are asking the question - did he jump or was he pushed? Sheikh al-Hilali has refused to comment.

His successor, Sheik Fehmi Naji el-Imam, is seen as a moderate who hopes to be a calming influence in relations between Australia's 350,000 Muslims and the rest of the country.

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia has grown since the bombings on the Indonesian Island of Bali in October 2002, in which 88 Australians were killed. Those attacks were blamed on a radical Islamic group, Jemaah Islamiah.