Initiative an attempt to halt racist attacks
The ad-hoc group meets every six weeks and is attempting to resolve tensions which have sparked attacks on the homes of Muslim people and the circulation of material which could be seen as inflammatory.
Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Catholic clergymen involved in the initiative are all concerned by the recent rise in racist incidents in the area.
Last October a Muslim family were forced from the Enniskeen estate after attacks on their home and there were other attacks earlier in the year on other families.
Pastor Tim Foley, a member of the Mennonite Greenfield Community Church in Portadown, is also involved in the discussions and said they were aimed at ending violent intimidation which has forced several Muslim families to leave the area.
“We have approached Muslims and told them that this does not represent us and we have become friendly with some of them,” he said.
“We are now part of a clerical group which holds meetings with Muslim leaders every six weeks where we try to offer advice and discuss issues.”
The controversy over race relations first emerged in Craigavon in winter 2003 after a group of Muslims applied for planning permission to build a mosque in the village of Bleary near Portadown.
Local residents opposed the move, ostensibly on planning grounds, but fears were also raised of increased traffic and noise in the area.
“I understand that they were not going to go ahead with the building of a mosque in Bleary but are looking at an Islamic centre somewhere in the area,” Mr Foley said.
Leaflets purporting to be from the White Nationalist Party backed the stance of local councillor Fred Crowe in opposing the building of the mosque and the issue developed into a major political scandal with Mr Crowe being reprimanded by his party leader, David Trimble.
A spokesman for the Belfast Islamic Centre confirmed that a mosque would not be built in Craigavon in the immediate future.
Mr Foley heads a congregation of around 40 worshippers in Portadown and promotes cross-community relations, mediation, reconciliation and restorative justice. Some members of his church have been involved in parades negotiation in other parts of the province.
Born in Co Cork, he worked in a church in London before moving to Northern Ireland last year. He dresses casually, only wears a religious collar on public occasions to “provide protection” from those opposed to his teachings and allows debate and interruption during his sermons.
“It offends me that churches don’t take reconciliation more seriously. If London is a few years ahead of Northern Ireland then Portadown church leaders need to face up to the fact that society is becoming increasingly secular,” he added.
“Church leaders need to start asking hard questions about why church attendance is falling and recognise that we are part of the problem and not part of the answer.”