Shia imam says visit by Saudi cleric 'worrying'


The imam of Ireland's only Shia mosque has criticised the visit to Ireland of a controversial cleric from Saudi Arabia, accusing him of encouraging anti-Shia sentiment. Mary Fitzgerald, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, reports.

Ali Al Saleh, imam of the Shia mosque in Milltown, Dublin, said the visit of Sheikh Salman Al Awda was "worrying" given the good relations between Sunni and Shia communities here.

Sheikh Al Awda is in Dublin to address a weekend conference headlined Our Children, Hopes and Realities at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (ICCI) based at Clonskeagh mosque, the largest Sunni Muslim place of worship in Ireland. Once considered a spiritual mentor to Osama Bin Laden, Sheikh Al Awda spent several years in prison in the 1990s for criticising Saudi Arabia's ruling family. Since then he has developed a closer relationship with the Saudi authorities.

A well-known figure in contemporary Salafism, a strand of Sunni Islam that focuses on a rigid interpretation of the Koran, Sheikh Al Awda was one of 26 Saudi clerics to declare in 2004 that it was a religious duty to fight US troops in Iraq.

Dr Al Saleh said the cleric had recently written an article in a Saudi newspaper describing Shias as "non-Muslims". "It is very worrying to see him visit Ireland, it means a lot. Muslims in Ireland, both Sunni and Shia, live in harmony. They should not invite people who incite hatred against the Shia to come here."

Ali Selim, resident theologian at the ICCI, defended the invitation, saying he was unaware of the article to which Dr Al Saleh had referred. "Yesterday Sheikh Al Awda gave the Friday sermon at the mosque and it confirmed to us that he is a great advocate of integration," Mr Selim said. "We have invited him to talk not about divisions but about the concerns of the youth. Yes Sheikh Al Awda was once controversial but he is renowned as a moderate now and we should encourage him."

Also addressing the conference is Wajdi Ghunaim, an Egyptian cleric who has been denied entrance to Canada and Switzerland because of his alleged links to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.