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British Methodists respond to the politics of race hatred

7/13/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

By Kathleen LaCamera*

BRADFORD, England (UMNS)-- The Rev. Geoff Reid had just returned home from an Anti-Nazi League rally in the northern English town of Bradford when he saw smoke rising from the city center.

He was surprised because he thought the Saturday afternoon rally protesting the "race-hate" politics of the far right British National Party (BNP) had proceeded peacefully.

Reid, who runs the Methodist Church's Touchstone Centre, specializing in interfaith and urban ministry, decided to head back into town. What he found there were crowds of mostly Pakistani youths battling police on horseback and on foot in full riot gear. He also found small groups of neighbors, white, Afro-Caribbean and Pakistani gathered on street corners and in bus shelters supporting one another in the midst of the violence.

Reid told United Methodist News Service he was really "impressed with the solidarity of the residents" in the face circumstances which might have caused others to turn on each other. During one really "hairy" moment Reid described how he and others with him dived behind a fence and pushed into someone's house as petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails were being thrown.

"I don't know whose house it was, but there was no question that we all were going in there," he added.

The night of violence and destruction on July 7 resulted in two people being stabbed, more than 200 police officers injured, and 55 arrested. The riot appears to have started when a group of white men leaving a pub shouted racially abusive language at a group of Asian youths.

This incident is just the latest in a summer of unrest that has involved clashes between Pakistani and white communities in some of northern England's most deprived areas.

In Oldham, where the BNP captured 14 percent of the votes in recent national elections, riots began in May after whites attacked Pakistani homes. The former British Methodist President, the Rev. Inderjit Bhogal, was quick to respond with letters of support to local churches and a visit to Oldham's mayor. He urged both political and church leaders to engage in a multifaith effort to fight growing prejudice and race hatred.

Bhogal's meeting with the town's Muslim deputy mayor, Rhiaz Ahmad, had to be cancelled after Ahmad's house was fire bombed a few days earlier and he and his family were moved to a "place of safety." Bhogal expressed his horror at the attack and urged every Methodist to "have the courage to speak out where racial or religious hatred is expressed."

The Rev. Paul Flowers, superintendent minister in the Bradford area, said that the disaffection that led to riots in Oldham and Bradford is nothing new. Flowers explained that entire groups of white and Pakistani youths literally have nothing to do.

Bradford, like other northern towns where trouble has broken out this summer, was once a thriving mill town. In the 1950s and 1960s there was more than enough work for both locals and newly arrived immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. But now the mills are closed and unemployment runs as high as 30-50 percent in some of severest pockets of deprivation. Second and third generation British-born children of these immigrants want something better and so do their white counterparts who see their Pakistani neighbors as a threat to what little opportunity is left.

"The political apathy and disaffection is a breeding ground for the BNP . . . Asian youngsters (who feel threatened) have felt a need to respond in a number of inappropriate ways," said Flowers.

At an interfaith Sunday evening service following the riots, members of Flower's Lidget Methodist Church were asked to take a lighted candle from the alter and bring it to a neighbor from a different race or faith.

"People had a feeling of sad acceptance about what had happened but were still hopeful," said Flowers.

The British government has called for conversations between faith communities and government officials to explore ways of bridging racial, cultural and religious divides that have contributed to recent events. Naboth Muchopa, the Methodist Church's secretary for racial justice, sees a real role for people of all faiths in promoting good race relations.

"As people of faith we believe in life, in the dignity of the human being," he said. "Let's begin with dialogue . . . People are already meeting in interfaith gatherings. We must be prepared to put resources where difficulties are, help those who need help and say we stand along side you, we want to help. We don't accept fear as a part of life."

Only a week before riots broke out in Bradford, local Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists held their annual interfaith Walk for Friendship in which participants visited each other's places of worship and enjoyed the distinctive hospitality of different religious traditions. Though saddened by events in Bradford and other northern cities, participants said the unrest has only strengthened their resolve to work together.

The Rev. Susan Bates believes it will be hard to rebuild relationships that have been eroded. Her parish, Trinity Methodist Church, is in the area most affected by the Bradford riots. But Bates also said it is a mistake to feel solutions are necessarily complicated.

"My honest belief is that the answers are simple. It is as easy to live with somebody as to not to. It is as easy to love them as to hate them. It's about basic respect for people, not about necessarily liking them, but respecting who they are and what they do. That's something we can teach and do."
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*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.

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