Police and child protection officials have launched an investigation into allegations of child abuse at two mosques in the West Midlands.
Around 40 schoolchildren are to be interviewed over claims that they have been subjected to violence and punishment by elders at the mosques, which are on adjoining roads.
The investigation was sparked last month when the mother of an eight-year-old boy complained to the police that a mullah [teacher] had slapped her son on the back and made him lie face down before putting his right foot on the boy’s back, leaving him with chest pains for more than 24 hours.
As word spread that an official complaint had been made, more children from the area came forward to report beatings and abuse which, the youths say, include being hit, slapped and even beaten with a hockey stick.
As the number of allegations grew, officers from West Midlands police called in the NSPCC to help deal with child protection and other welfare issues.
Police have been forced to tread lightly as elders and mullahs at mosques are among the most respected and influential people in the community.
Relations with the Muslim community in the area are fragile and police officers are aware of the difficulty they face getting evidence as often local people are reluctant to talk.
A source close to the inquiry said: “There is a cultural problem to deal with.
“People here are very concerned about doing anything that will bring disgrace on their community or the mosques, and are often ostracised if they speak out. Some parents find it acceptable for the mullahs to chastise children physically, while others who don’t are too fearful to speak out.
“Community leaders close ranks and are not slow to claim persecution or racism by the authorities.
“They have a great deal of control over children and adults, especially the men.
“But it is the duty of the police to act if there are allegations that children are being routinely beaten.”
The majority of Muslim children attend the mosques for two hours every day after school to learn about the Koran.
After the eight-year-old boy’s mother complained – an allegation that has since been withdrawn – word spread quickly.
The source said: “They started coming out of the woodwork.
“From what we can gather it appears that it has been going on for a long time but until now no one has made an official complaint.”
Police are expected to begin interviewing the children next Tuesday, following the end of the holy festival of Ramadan, which they were keen not to interrupt. They declined to comment officially but sources said arrests were “imminent”.
A spokesman for the NSPCC said that it would not comment on an ongoing investigation.
Last month a morality teacher at a mosque in Peterborough was jailed for four months for beating one of his pupils with a stick.
Mohammed Abdullah, 44, flew into a rage after finding a picture of a caveman in the boy’s exercise book on which someone had pencilled in a penis and beat the boy around the neck.