LONDON - The government removed Britain's most outspoken Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, from his post yesterday as imam at the Finsbury Park mosque, which the authorities believe is an active recruitment center for violent Islamic radicals.
The Charity Commission's decision to ban al-Masri from preaching at the northern London mosque was made a day after he declared that the crew of the Columbia space shuttle - six Americans, including an Indian-born Hindu, and an Israeli - represented a "trinity of evil" punished with death by Allah. The comments sparked outrage throughout Britain.
Al-Masri, a 44-year-old Egyptian-born militant Muslim who is wanted in Yemen on terrorism charges, "had used his position within the charity to make inappropriate political statements," the Charity Commission said. "The action we have taken today enables the trustees of the North London Central Mosque to govern the charity so that it can do the important work for which it was originally established," said John Stoker, the chief charity commissioner.
In April the Charity Commission suspended al-Masri from his leadership of the mosque. Sush Aman, a spokeswoman for the commission, said al-Masri's remarks about the shuttle disaster had "absolutely no connection at all" to the commission's decision.
Al-Masri is still free to pray outside the mosque, which remains closed after 150 police officers in riot gear used battering rams and ladders in a surprise raid at 2 a.m. Jan. 20. Seven people were arrested at the mosque on charges related to the discovery of the deadly poison ricin in a London apartment Jan. 5.
Among the worshipers at the Finsbury Park mosque who have heard al-Masri's preachings: Richard C. Reid, the Briton who was given a life sentence last week for trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic airliner with explosives hidden in his shoes, and Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who faces conspiracy charges in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.