Medics rush sheikh to hospital

Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali has given the first hint he may step down after asking for indefinite leave from his duties as Australia’s senior Muslim cleric.

On a dramatic day in which he collapsed and was rushed to hospital, the strain was showing on the religious leader whose comments comparing immodestly dressed women to pieces of meat have ignited a firestorm of controversy.

The sheik collapsed with chest pains during a meeting with Muslim leaders at Sydney’s Lakemba Mosque that was to have decided his future.

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An ambulance rushed him to nearby Canterbury Hospital, where doctors said he was in a stable condition but would remain for up to three days.

In a statement, the 65-year-old mufti of Australia and New Zealand said he would decide soon whether to heed the widespread calls for him to quit.

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

“The pressure of the last couple of days has had an obvious effect on my health and wellbeing.

“I ask the public to give my family and I some privacy, time and space to recover.

“I have also asked for indefinite leave from duties at Lakemba Mosque.”

Prime Minister John Howard had today called on the Muslim community to deal with the matter as a matter of urgency.

“We can appeal, as I am again doing this morning, to the Islamic community who I want to be fully and comfortably part of the mainstream of Australia,” Mr Howard said.

“We’re appealing to those people to understand the damage that will be done to the perception of their own community if they do not deal with this issue.”

Lebanese Muslim Association president Tom Zreika said today that Sheik Alhilali has a history of heart trouble and asthma and would remain in hospital for up to three days.

The sheik’s health has deteriorated since news broke last week of a sermon he gave last month in which he blamed women for sexual assault and compared immodestly dressed women to uncovered pieces of meat.

In his statement today he apologised for the furore that erupted following what he called “an unintentional analogy”.

“Once again I turn to all the women of Australia and the world,” he said.

“You are the shining lights of the world … how could any sane person think of humiliating you?

“You are the cherished pearls, the dearest thing in the world so don’t be taken as offerings at the temples of the merchants of pleasure or advocates of decadence and corruption.”

After days of defiance despite condemnation from within the Muslim community and non-Muslims in which he repeatedly refused to quit, the sheik’s statement today suggests he is reconsidering his position.

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