U.K. Muslims Support Keeping Christ in Christmas
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Muslim leaders have joined the head of Britain's Commission on Racial Equality in urging Britons to enjoy Christmas more and stop worrying about offending non-Christians. The calls have come amid reports that schools are canceling Nativity plays in order not to offend Muslims and students of other religions.
But as Rob Gifford reports, it is Muslims who are leading the efforts to keep the Christ in Christmas.
ROB GIFFORD: To Americans, Britain can seem a strange place when it comes to religion. There's no separation of church and state; religion can be, and is, taught in schools. And yet the number of people attending church has declined drastically in recent years.
Now a head of the government-funded Commission for Equality and Human Rights, Trevor Phillips, has - in the run-up to Christmas - caused the furor. He said that Christian Nativity plays should be performed in all schools, even those that contain predominantly children of other religions.
Mr. TREVOR PHILLIPS (Commission for Equality and Human Rights): I think schools which are deliberately shying away from the real - the true story of Christmas, are just plain wrong and that what they should do is make sure that all of their children have access to this very important, fundamental, national celebration and tradition. Otherwise they're robbing their children of really being part of what it to be British.
GIFFORD: The problem is that what it means to be British is changing so rapidly because of the waves of immigration of recent years, and many local government leaders think that Muslims and those of other religions shouldn't be forced to sit through events like Nativity plays and other legacies of Britain's Christian past.
But some Muslim leaders, such as Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain, have come out supporting Trevor Phillips.
Mr. SHEIKH IBRAHIM MOGRA (Muslim Council of Britain): What happens is each time some bureaucrat or some official goes and makes this announcement, the average British person begins to feel that these Muslims always have a problem with something or other in our country. Hey, if they don't like it, why don't they go back where they came from?
GIFFORD: The issue of Nativity plays is part of a wider debate about how much a role religion should play these days in modern Britain.
Paul Woolley of the London think tank Theos thinks British people are not quite as secular as some have suggested.
Mr. PAUL WOOLLEY (Director, Theos): I think there is still a lot of concern among people of all religious faiths, and those people that would say they don't have a religious faith, about values more generally within our society and where those values come from. And so there's often a lot of support at a grassroots level for, for example, church schools.
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GIFFORD: Here in the capital on the streets around Brick Lane, the sounds could be those of Karachi or Bombay. Schools here stage Nativity plays and respect Muslim holidays, like the festival of Eid. Shoppers Jamal Khan(ph) and Mij Rahman(ph) seem happy with that.
Mr. JAMAL KHAN: I do celebrate Christmas and Eid. It's the same to me. I live in this country. I respect both, you know?
Mr. MIJ RAHMAN: At the end of the day, Britain is a Christian country and we should embrace that one. And why should it offend Muslims because he is our prophet as well, you know? Jesus is one of our prophets, so it shouldn't really offend anybody, really.
GIFFORD: For now the Christian Nativity plays will go on in British schools, but so will the debate about whether they should.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.
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