Muslim imams and other “ministers of religion” wishing to enter Britain to work must show a basic command of spoken English, under new Home Office regulations.
Within two years of entry, they will have to reach a higher standard as “competent” English writers or speakers, according to the restrictions, which will come into force by the end of next month.
The Home Office is also considering introducing a requirement for imams and priests who have been in Britain for a year to show “a knowledge of, and engagement with, British civic life”. They may also be required to have some form of “professional qualification”.
The restrictions, and the proposals under consideration, have been prompted by Government concern that some foreign imams may be preaching radical teachings, which could incite terrorism.
However, the Home Office announcement yesterday made clear that the restrictions would not be targeted only at Islamic preachers but all kinds of “ministers of religion”.
The Home Office said the move followed consultation with a range of “faith groups”.
The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said: “We have consulted and listened to faith groups and are encouraged that many faith representatives recognise the need for ministers to speak for the communities they represent and, in particular, to communicate effectively with the younger generation.
“That is why it is essential that ministers coming from overseas can speak English when they arrive in the UK so they can speak to and for their congregations.
“It is also important that once here, faith leaders play a full role in their communities and gain an understanding and appreciation of British civic life.”
The Muslim Council of Britain “broadly welcomed” the move. However, its spokesman, Inayat Bunglawala, questioned whether the initial level of English required was sufficiently rigorous, pointing out that foreign doctors had to show a higher level of competence.
The council also said it was sceptical about the argument that imams with a poor grasp of English were more likely to be fundamentalist. It pointed out that some of the “radical” preachers who had featured in the British media, such as Abu Hamza, spoke clear English.
“The census of 2001 showed that just over half of British Muslims are UK-born,” said Mr Bunglawala. “English is their primary language. For imams to communicate with that British-born generation, they have to speak English.”
The council believes that the Home Office requirements might be only an “interim measure” because the British Muslim community is producing its own imams.
Clerics and religious ministers are exempt from the work permit system which applies to other entrants.
The Home Office also detailed tighter rules aimed at stopping temporary migrants switching into permanent employment.
Also, foreign nationals in Britain on a temporary visa who want to stay to study will be allowed to switch only to degree level courses.