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Muslim Religious Leaders in Australia Blamed for Not Protecting Women

Some Muslim religious leaders in the Australian state of Victoria have been accused of condoning rape within marriage, domestic violence and polygamy according to a new report on the training of imams. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Research by the Islamic Womens' Welfare Council of Victoria has found evidence that imams encouraged women to drop complaints of domestic violence or to abandon divorce proceedings when they had gone to their religious leaders for advice.

There are allegations too that imams also condoned welfare fraud, under-age marriages and the exploitation of women.

The report's authors say Friday these problems mean that vulnerable women are not getting the help they need from their spiritual advisers and believe that a lack of training and regulation for imams is to blame.

Other community workers say these issues are not a reflection of the wider Muslim community in Australia and that the report has highlighted extreme cases.

Despite such reservation, Sherene Hassan from the Islamic Council of Victoria says that some religious teachers do need to change their behavior.

"Obviously there are imams who have mishandled situations and they have been ill-equipped to deal with situations, so obviously we will be looking at strategies to, you know, improve their capacity to deal with these situations and to re-educate them," she said.

Australia's imams were usually born overseas and they have often been criticized for their poor grasp of English and a lack of understanding of Australian culture.

The Mufti of Australia, Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam, has rejected the report. He has insisted that no official imam would condone polygamous relationships and would not ignore a woman's rights either in marriage or divorce. The leader of Australia's Muslims also said that qualified religious instructors would not deliberately overlook domestic violence.

Australia's Islamic community numbers about 350,000. Its members have come from dozens of countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Somali, Bosnia and the Middle East.