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Europe: Mosques Proliferate As Britain's Muslim Community Grows

London, 31 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A study published in London says Britain will be home to almost two million Muslims within 20 years, almost double the number today and by far the largest non-Christian community in the country.

The report by the Runnymede Trust, an independent think-tank, focuses on the rapid transition of Britain in recent years from a largely Christian and Judaic country to a multi-cultural and multi-faith society.

The report says that the Muslim population of Britain has grown from some 20,000 in the early 1950s to about 1.2 million today.

This rapid growth reflects immigration from former British colonies -- particularly Pakistan. Presently, there are 700,000 people of Pakistani origin in Britain, two-thirds of whom were born in the country.

The report discloses that there are now more than 600 mosques in Britain compared with a handful only 30 years ago. From the 1970s, new registrations of mosques have been running at 25 to 30 a year.

They include the multi-million dollar Regents Park mosque, said to have been funded by Saudi money, that occupies a prime central London site.

The report notes that the age-profile of South Asian communities in Britain is different from that of the majority population -- a higher proportion are under 20 and a lower proportion are over 60. It says: "Because of the demographic facts, the (Muslim) communities are bound to increase in size over the next 20 years, both absolutely and relatively."

The report claims to have identified growing prejudice against Muslims, fueled by "distorted and negative" media coverage, and it calls on the government to introduce new laws against religious discrimination.

The report says that objections from local communities to mosque building -- notably in the southern English town of Chichester last year -- illustrated the kind of "Islamophobic" attitudes that warranted new laws.

The report accused the local newspaper's letter page of providing a "platform to virulent anti-Muslim sentiments" from local residents. (One letter said: "A mosque in lovely old English Chichester. No. No. Thank God for everything English".)

The report says, "The expression of Islamophobic views by people who are maintain they are motivated by Christian principles requires that Church leaders should vigorously express alternative views."

Professor Gordon Conway, who chaired the commission that drafted the Runnymede Trust report, said there should be a code of practice governing the way the British media handled Islamic issues.

He said stories and cartoons could be offensive, reinforcing stereotypes about Islamic extremism. He said: "They are carried in newspapers in a way that they would not be about the Jews."

He called for new legislation to outlaw religious -- as opposed to racial discrimination -- and said that without further legal sanctions, many Muslims would remain excluded from mainstream British life.

However, Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw said he had no plans to legislate on behalf of Muslims. He said that what he called "prophets of doom" have described multiculturalism in Britain as a divisive force. But he said these voices are increasingly out of touch with reality.

An RFE/RL correspondent notes that many British cities have large and flourishing Muslim communities, and that integration is well advanced, particularly among children and young people in the education system. Support for far-right racist parties in Britain is negligible, and runs at a far lower level than for similar parties in Austria, France or Germany.

In his remarks, Straw commented that Britain's diversity is a national strength, not a weakness -- and "an opportunity and not a threat."