Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, mufti of Australia since 1989, returned to the Lakemba Mosque on Friday, basking in the applause of hundreds of Muslim supporters who had gathered for noon prayers just days after taking indefinite leave.

While at the mosque, he issued a media statement that called for a panel of one judge and two lawyers to investigate claims in the media that his September sermon amounted to incitement to commit rape.

The Sheik's statement read: "Any person, whatever his position may be, who justifies the crime of rape or encourages it under any circumstances, or whoever degrades Australian women for their dress, is nothing but an ignorant, foolish and crazy person who does not deserve to hold any position of responsibility, be it public or private, in our Australian society."

Measures

Among the measures the sheik said he would take if the panel found his comments could incite rape was retiring from all religious work.

He also offered to place masking tape on his mouth in public places for six months as a measure of self-discipline.

If exonerated, the sheik said, he would make a decision about his future to serve democracy and enhance coexistence and harmony between the Muslim community and its Australian society away from extremism and racial fanaticism.

In his sermon on Friday, al-Hilali invited Australia's imams to nominate themselves this week if they wished to replace him, although he did not suggest he would step aside for them.

'Uncovered meat'

"The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred"

Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, mufti of Australia

In his statement on Monday, al-Hilali said that his previous comments when he used a meat analogy were inappropriate and unacceptable for Australian society and Western society in general.

In the September speech he had said: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it?"

"The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred," he was quoted as saying, referring to the head scarf worn by some Muslim women.

He also described women as being soldiers of Satan who were responsible for 90 per cent of adultery.

Divided support

Al-Hilali gained support of 34 Islamic organisations that signed an open letter on Thursday stating that certain sections of the media and political establishment have used this incident as an opportunity to vilify the Australian Muslim community.

John Howard, the Australian prime minister, renewed his warning on Friday that al-Hilali's continuing leadership could do lasting damage to the image of Australia's 300,000 Muslims within a mostly Christian population of more than 20 million.

"Unless this issue is resolved in a way that is seen as appropriate by the majority of the Australian community, it could do lasting damage to relations between Islamic Australians and the rest of the community," Howard told reporters.