London: An Indian-origin imam chosen by the BBC for a select panel of members of the British public to put their questions to the UK's prime ministerial hopefuls during a live television debate has triggered controversy over some of his past anti-Jewish remarks on social media.
Imam Abdullah Patel challenged frontrunner Boris Johnson and the four others remaining in the Conservative Party leadership race over tackling Islamophobia in Britain during the debate telecast by the BBC Tuesday night.
Johnson said he was "sorry for the offence" his comments about veiled Muslim women looking like "letter boxes" and "bank robbers" had caused, while Pakistani-origin minister Sajid Javid urged all his fellow candidates to commit to an external investigation into the issue of Islamophobia within the Tory party. However, by Wednesday morning the narrative had shifted against Imam Patel himself as some of his past messages from Twitter were unearthed.
"Every political figure on the Zionist's payroll is scaring the world about Corbyn. They don't like him. He seems best suited to tackle them," read one of his past tweets, seen as anti-semitic. He also tweeted a map of the US, suggesting Israel should be moved from the Middle East to North America as a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A BBC statement said Imam Patel seemed to have deactivated and then reactivated his Twitter account and if the corporation knew of the views he had expressed in the past, he would not have been invited on to the programme.
"Had we been aware of the views he expressed there he would not have been selected," said a BBC spokesperson.
Amid the mounting controversy, Imam Patel was also suspended as Deputy Head of a girls' school at Gloucester in the west of England. Al-Ashraf Primary School said in a statement that he had been suspended "from all school duties" while it investigated comments attributed to him in the media.
"The Trust has decided to suspend him from all school duties with immediate effect until a full investigation is carried out. The school and trust do not share the views attributed to him," said Yakub Patel, Chair of the Al-Madani Educational Trust, which runs the primary school.
Imam Patel himself denied his past Twitter statements were against the Jewish community, but directed at "Israel's policy".
"The criticism was not of the Jewish community because if you go through my tweets, you'd see support for the Jewish community. They're our brothers and sisters, and the Jewish community and I - especially in Gloucester - work very closely together. We actually visited a synagogue just a while ago," he said.
He emerged as the one of the most commented-upon members of the public during the live TV debate, which saw Boris Johnson go head to head with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, environment secretary Michael Gove, home secretary Javid and international development secretary Rory Stewart on a range of issues. Questioners from around the UK appeared on a big screen to quiz the candidates from a regional BBC television studio.
The debate followed the second round of voting in the Tory leadership race, which knocked out former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab from the running after failing to secure the minimum 33-vote threshold.
Johnson once again emerged as the winner of the round, with the race for second place set for another round of voting during the course of the week.
The final two candidates will be put to a postal ballot to the wider Tory party membership around the UK, who will then select the successor to take over from Theresa May at 10 Downing Street next month....