- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

LONDON — Christian and Muslim Britons joined forces yesterday to tell city officials to stop taking the Christianity out of Christmas, warning them that this simply fuels a backlash against Muslims.

They attacked local authorities who used titles such as “Winterval” for their Christmas celebrations and avoided using Christian symbols in case they offended minority groups, especially Muslims and Hindus.

The question of how best to integrate Muslims into European society, which has Christian roots but is increasingly secular, has become a burning issue, with Britain playing its part in the debate after years of promoting multiculturalism.

The Christian Muslim Forum, set up by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Church of England, complained that taking the Christian message out of Christmas played into the hands of extreme nationalists who then accuse Muslims of undermining Britain’s Christian culture.

“The desire to secularize religious festivals is in itself offensive to both our communities,” said Ataullah Siddiqui, vice chairman of the forum.

Anglican Bishop of Bolton David Gillett said that when local authorities rename Christmas so as not to offend other religions, their stance “will tend to backfire badly on the Muslim community in particular.”

“We are concerned that those approaches, which are based on anti-religious philosophies or a fear of religion, are causing alienation in a wide variety of communities and fanning the growth of extremism,” said Bishop Gillett, the forum chairman.

“Sadly, it is [Muslims] who get the blame for something they are not saying. And after all, the Koran speaks with honor about Jesus and tells of his birth to Mary, a virgin,” he added.

The threat of radical Islam, rammed home by the London bombings in July last year, has led Britain to rethink its traditionally tolerant attitude toward ethnic minorities.

The government has opened a debate on whether the policy of not imposing a single British identity on immigrants, and instead promoting multiculturalism, has led to the segregation of minority communities.

The London bombings prompted much soul-searching over what led four young Muslim Britons to become suicide bombers and kill 52 persons.

Many analysts fear the focus on Islam could backfire if Britain’s 1.8 million Muslims feel they are under attack.

Religious controversies have made front-page news in British papers this year, including Muslim protests over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about Islam and the debate over Muslim women wearing full veils.

Bishop Gillett said: “Following the many controversies through which my Muslim friends have gone this year … I am particularly conscious of wanting to say to them in my Christmas cards and in person: May the peace and blessing of God be with you this Christmas.”

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