Australian Prime Minister John Howard warned yesterday that comments by Australia's top Islamic cleric about women and rape could do lasting damage to the Muslim community's relations with the rest of the nation.
Howard was speaking against a background of spiralling protest and anger over the cleric's description of immodestly-dressed women without an Islamic headscarf as "uncovered meat" inviting sexual attack.
Riot squad officers were among a strong police force dispatched to a major Islamic festival to mark the end of Ramadan in Sydney yesterday, the Australian Broadcasting Corp reported.
The cleric, the Mufti of Australia Sheikh Taj Aldin al-Hilali, cancelled his planned appearance at the festival, which was expected to draw up to 35,000 people, in the wake of the uproar over his remarks.
Howard said he did not have the power to sack the mufti, but called on Islamic leaders to deal with him.
"The responsibility to resolve this matter sensibly rests with the Islamic community," Howard told reporters.
"I don't appoint him, I can't dismiss him," he added.
He urged the Islamic community "to resolve this matter in a way that promotes the interests of harmony in our community and promotes the view that Muslim Australians are fully integrated into Australian society."
"If this matter is not properly handled by the Islamic community I am concerned that their failure to do so will do lasting damage to the perceptions of that community within the Australian community," Howard said.
"His remarks were totally unacceptable -- full stop," he added.
Some ministers have since called for Hilali to be deported.