Radical Muslim cleric fired from mosque post
Wednesday, February 5, 2003
LONDON -- The fiery Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri was removed from his post Tuesday as a leader of a London mosque alleged to be a recruitment center for Islamic radicals.
Al-Masri was dismissed by the government's Charity Commission for "inappropriate political statements" and interfering with the running of the Finsbury Park Mosque, registered as a charity.
"The activities of Abu Hamza and his followers were not charitable," said Simon Gillespie, a spokesman for the commission, which has regulatory power over groups registered as charities.
The commission, which suspended al-Masri in April, said it was making the decision permanent after rejecting an appeal from the cleric's attorneys.
Al-Masri -- who last week led Friday prayers on the sidewalk outside the building -- said he would continue to preach if worshippers wanted him to.
"The Charity Commission can hijack the mosque, the place of the message, but they can't hijack the messenger," he added.
The mosque has been closed since 150 police stormed it on Jan. 20 as part of an anti-terrorist investigation.
Gillespie told the British Broadcasting Corp. the "drastic step" had been taken because of al-Masri's extreme statements and "the use of the charity's premises for inappropriate non-charitable activities."
Officials accuse al-Masri of drawing extremist elements to the north London building, including convicted "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid and fundamentalists who plotted to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
In last month's raid, police seized documents, computers and other items as part of an investigation into the discovery of the deadly poison ricin in a London apartment. Seven North African men were arrested, and one was charged with terrorist offenses.
The Charity Commission also said the imam, or prayer leader, had "used his position within the charity to make inappropriate political statements."
The commission began investigating al-Masri in October 2001 after he made "extreme comments" about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In an interview with The Associated Press that month, al-Masri said he didn't believe Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington.
"I don't condemn that operation because it may be the work of a cell of infidels," he said. "But we ask God to destroy that nation (the United States) which harms Muslims anyway. If He does, then it's a blessing."
An Egyptian-born British citizen who lost his hands and left eye fighting in Afghanistan and Bosnia, al-Masri is wanted in Yemen on terrorist charges and has called Britain the "land of the enemies of Islam."
His fiery rhetoric, single eye and hook have made him a colorful hate figure for Britain's tabloid press, and he has not shied away from publicity.
On Monday, he told Britain's Press Association news agency that the loss of the space shuttle Columbia was "a punishment from God" because it carried Americans, Indian-born Hindu astronaut Kalpana Chawla and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space.
A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said al-Masri's sacking had "absolutely no connection at all" with his comments about the shuttle, which were condemned by Muslim leaders.