PARIS Mail's top Muslim leader rejected the actions of Islamist foreigners in the north of his country and expressed outrage that they were trying to impose an alien version of Islam on a country that had been Muslim for a millennium.
In an interview published on Thursday, Imam Mahmoud Dicko, head of the High Islamic Council in Bamako, also defended France's military intervention.
"What right do they have to impose the sharia here?" Dicko asked in the interview in the Catholic daily La Croix.
"What right do they have to take up arms to tell us how to practise Islam in our country?
"Thank God (France) has intervened to protect us from those who wanted to conquer us and impose their way of living Islam."
Islamists in northern Mali have destroyed historic Muslim shrines, which they considered heretical, and imposed harsh punishments that they say sharia Islamic law demands such as stoning adulterers to death and chopping off thieves' hands.
The imam disagreed with Muslim leaders who have criticized France's support for the government in Bamako.
"They talk about a war against Islam and a new crusade by France," he said. "I'm against this talk from Egypt or Qatar. They are completely mistaken."
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi criticized the French offensive on Monday and a Muslim group led by the influential Qatar-based preacher Youssef al-Qaradawi has warned of "dangerous consequences" from the intervention.
Dicko, described by La Croix as a follower of the puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam, said Bamako should try to negotiate with Malian Islamists but "chase out ... foreigners who came to impose sharia on us."
Some strict Wahhabis such as the Saudis also apply harsh punishments based on sharia Islamic law.
Dicko blamed attacks on a church in northern Mali on "wayward Muslims who came from abroad" and said relations between Mali's Islamic majority and its small Christian minority had always been harmonious.
Sheikh Sidi Konake, head of the Tijani Sufi brotherhood in Mali, also told La Croix he supported France's intervention.
"It's not fighting against Islam but against foreigners who want to impose their way of practicing Islam on us," he said.
"Luckily, France has come to save us from those people," he said. "Let me tell you -- there will be lots of little Malians named Hollande, you'll see."
(Reporting by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)