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Blackburn-based mosque bans Rice

Her trip to Masjide Al Hidayah was cancelled for "security reasons", reports Vijay Dutt.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2006 19:25 IST
Vijay Dutt
Vijay Dutt

A two-day whistlestop tour introducing the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the "real Britain" of Blackburn and Liverpool was to have been Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's repayment for the hospitality that he was afforded by her in her native Alabama last year.

But his attempt to repay and equal her welcome to him turned into a diplomatic embarrassment with Muslims (dominant there with 25,000 population) in his constituency Blackburn holding protests against her over the Iraq war and clerics refusing to allow her visit to a mosque.

The trip to the Blackburn-based Masjide Al Hidayah mosque, what was to be a highlight of her visit, was then cancelled for "security reasons". In Liverpool, a local newspaper columnist likened the visit to one by the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley in the 1930s.

Ironically, Straw hoped the visit to the mosque would be a stunning personal triumph in a display of religious harmony, but it was turned into a nightmare by the very people whom he had nursed earnestly and were considered his allies.

One of the clerics who decided on the ban said, "Letting her (Rice) inside one of our mosque is like allowing Ariel Sharon or a terrorist."

He added that it was not right that a woman "with thousands of people's blood on her hands should be able to visit our mosques and have her pictures taken."

Straw said, "To claim a leading figure of one of our great allies is a terrorist is totally inappropriate. Everything we are doing on the visit is being done with respect to the communities involved. I'm disappointed that it is not possible for Secretary Rice to visit this mosque but she is going to see plenty else of Blackburn, and will be able to meet many members of the Asian community in town."

A visit to a high school which has a majority of Muslim pupils was also likely to be disrupted after scores of parents threatened to keep their children away in protest. But the visit to meet staff at the 1,200-pupil Pleckgate High School was not cancelled.

Thousands of protesters from Stop the War plan rallies in Blackburn on Saturday morning, and in Liverpool before the concert on Friday. Assistant Chief Constable Patricia Gallan, of Merseyside Police, said: "Trained officers will be on hand to deal swiftly with anyone who breaks the law and puts public safety at risk. We need to ensure public safety is maintained at all times."

Rice's attendance at the concert, to celebrate the city's status as European Capital of Culture 2008, has already caused controversy with poet Roger McGough refusing to compere the event. He said he originally accepted the role without realising the depth of feeling against the visit among anti-war protesters.

Rice was met at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport by city dignitaries on Thursday evening. Later, a few anti-war protesters chanted slogans outside her Hope Street hotel.

The boycott and protests have been condemned as ghetto mentality encouraged by obsession for multi-culturalism and a symptom of a deeper malaise, for Straw is a show of defiance against him personally.

First Published: Mar 31, 2006 19:25 IST