LONDON (Reuters) - Muslims across Britain heard a sermon on Friday urging them to help prevent a recurrence of recent high-profile crimes such as organised child rape and the gruesome murder of a soldier in London, which have put their community in the spotlight.
Congregations in around 500 mosques heard the sermon arguing that Muslims must speak out following the conviction of men of Pakistani and east African origin on Thursday for running a child sex ring in the city of Oxford.
The case, where seven men were convicted of offences including child rape or sexual activity with children, followed others in Derby, Rochdale and Telford in which Muslim men, usually from Pakistani and South Asian backgrounds, were found guilty of 'grooming', or luring children into sex rings.
The murder of soldier Lee Rigby outside London's Woolwich barracks last month, which is being treated as terrorism, has prompted a series of demonstrations against Islam and a rise in islamophobic attacks, including suspected arson at an Islamic centre in London.
"The combination of publicity from a number of these cases hitting the headlines in a short space of time and the fallout from the Woolwich case will create a major challenge for the Muslim community," the sermon read.
"With so many individuals from a Muslim background involved in such crimes, we have a responsibility to condemn this," congregations heard, as they were encouraged to take action to prevent such acts.
Prime Minister David Cameron had called the Woolwich attack "a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country".
The Muslim Council of Britain, which represents Britain's nearly 3 million Muslims, sent out the sermon in conjunction with a group that campaigns against street grooming.
"We wholeheartedly condemn the disgraceful actions of those involved in these cases and welcome the convictions in the cases that have been through the courts," the sermon said.
"We wish to show our support for the (victims) of this terrible crime, many of whom are innocent children, and we wish to affirm that Islam as a religion of mercy and compassion places a strong obligation on safeguarding and protecting the weak and vulnerable from (oppression) and abuse, particularly of women and children."
Ansar Ali, spokesman for the Together Against Grooming project, said the sermon was unprecedented.
"We have brought together mosques and imams from all over the UK, irrespective of differences, to collectively deliver a hard-hitting sermon," he said.
"We are united in our stand against sexual grooming and, as Muslims, we are leading the effort to rid society of this crime."
Reporting By Costas Pitas; Editing by Kevin Liffey