Cleric's venomous words rile many in Muslim community

Posted: February 09, 2003

LONDON — Shortly before 1 p.m. on Friday, red and blue prayer rugs and white plastic tarps were unfolded and laid out in the middle of a damp north London street.

About 120 faithful, all of them men, sat down on the ground cover outside the Finsbury Park mosque to await the man who would lead them in both prayer and controversy.

He arrived deep in the center of a throng of masked security guards, but there was no mistaking him. Abu Hamza al-Masri, a towering man in his mid-40s with no hands and only one eye, has become Britain's most visible - and notorious - Muslim leader, much to the pain of the country's large mainstream Islamic community.

Abu Hamza, as he is known, was locked out of the Finsbury Park mosque by its trustees Jan. 20, and permanently barred Tuesday by government charity officials. Now he was leading prayers in the street for the third consecutive Friday and vowing to continue come rain, sleet or snow.

Dozens of print and TV journalists joined worshippers waiting to hear one of his sermons, known for their venomous anti-American, anti-Jewish content. This one had as a key theme the Columbia space shuttle disaster, which Abu Hamza said was ordained by God.

"The message from God came quickly - you are not welcome up there," he said of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Noting that the shuttle fell over President Bush's home state of Texas, he warned Bush that "you, man, are a curse for your people . . . and soon a calamity will drop on your head."

Abu Hamza's rise began quietly about six years ago when he was accepted into the Finsbury Park mosque as a kheteeb - one who helps deliver sermons on Friday, the Muslim holy day.

The Egyptian-born cleric, who lost an eye and both hands while fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan, was a plus for the mosque: He spoke English, while the regular imam spoke only Pakistani Urdu.

"Initially," said mosque trustee Mahmood Hassan, "he was OK. But gradually he found that if he delivers controversial statements, he gets popularity."

Soon the mosque's usual crowd of Bengali and Algerian worshippers was swelled by groups of young men Hassan refers to as Abu Hamza's "gang."

They were "various sorts of guys, they haven't got anything to do," Hassan said. "So then he was using the mosque to provide them free accommodation."

Abu Hamza's young male followers intimidated regular worshippers, who drifted away, Hassan said. Alarmed that Abu Hamza had taken control, mosque leaders went to court in 1998 but failed to get him ejected. At that point, they turned to the media with complaints about his conduct.

Finally, the British Charity Commission last week banned him from preaching at the charity-sanctioned mosque, on grounds he violated nonprofit charity rules by making "inappropriate political statements" - most conspicuously after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, when he said, "America is a crazy superpower and what was done was done in self-defense." On the anniversary of the attacks, he played host to a rally billed as "A Towering Day in History."

This is more than a controversy about radical speech.

Abu Hamza, who is wanted in Yemen for allegedly orchestrating terrorist actions there, has been linked by British and U.S. authorities to al-Qaeda terrorists, including accused "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and the terrorists who carried out the deadly bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.

But while the office of British Home Secretary David Blunkett says officials are keeping "a close eye" on Abu Hamza, who is a British citizen, he has not been charged under anti-terrorism laws.

On Jan. 20, 150 police staged a 2 a.m. raid on the mosque and arrested seven men. The raid was believed related to the discovery of the poison ricin and the arrest of six men at a flat not far from the mosque early last month.

After the raid, police gave the keys to the mosque back to the trustees. Finding the place a shambles, they locked it and boarded it up, at which point Abu Hamza moved his sermons to the street.

"The roof is leaking, the dome has cracks and may collapse, water has been going into the walls," said Hassan, who estimates necessary repairs at more than $100,000.

Mosque leaders have vowed to cleanse it "physically and spiritually." But Muslims worry the damage that the cleric has done to their community's reputation will be harder to repair.

"We have well over 1,000 mosques in the U.K., and yet this one mosque has received a lion's share of the media coverage," said Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain.

Said trustee Hassan: "We will not allow this mosque to be used as a place for all the filth that has been coming through his mouth.

"This person has turned this mosque into a place which is a source of harm to the Muslim community. . . . At no cost will we let that happen again."

Contact Fawn Vrazo at 215-854-2405 or foreign@phillynews.com.

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