A priest has been interviewed by police on suspicion of inciting racial hatred for expressing his Christian views in his parish newsletter.
Father John Hayes, 71, was quizzed for more than an hour after commenting on the case of a Muslim girl who went to court over her wish to wear a full veil in class.
A sergeant and community support officer turned up without warning at his presbytery after an allegation was made to a Scotland Yard ‘hate crimes’ unit.
The inquisition in Hornchurch, East London, prompted a furious row about policing priorities. In the past 12 months there have been five murders, 33 rapes, 424 robberies and 2,267 burglaries in the local police borough of Havering.
Yet, despite being accused of turning a blind eye to the inflammatory remarks of some Muslim preachers of hate, the Met still found time to quiz Mr Hayes.
Last night the priest said his ‘offending’ remarks had concerned Shabina Begum, who, represented by Cherie Blair QC, claimed unsuccessfully that it was her human right to be allowed to wear her jilbab, a loose gown, in class.
After hearing an interview with the girl, Mr Hayes suggested in his internet bulletin to his parishioners that it was never possible to convince anyone by argument in matters of religion.
“My point was that you have to demonstrate what it means to be Christian through your actions,” he said.
“Apparently someone in my congregation was unhappy with my comments and, after waiting a year, went to the police to say he had been ‘disturbed’ by it.”
A fortnight ago officers knocked on the door of his home next to St Mary’s Church, Hornchurch. They said they had been sent by a superintendent.
“They said they had come to see if I had intended to incite racial hatred,” the priest said. “I was pretty surprised. It seemed to me that political correctness had gone haywire in this situation.
“They were very polite and cordial, but I did say to them that surely they had better things to be doing with their time.
“We had a long, civilised discussion and I didn’t give an inch.
“They seemed satisfied and when they eventually left the sergeant told me ‘that’s the end of the matter’. I felt the whole thing was a bit of a storm in a teacup.”
He added: “I have the greatest respect for Islam. There are so many more similarities than differences in our religions that I feel it is a great pity we concentrate on the few things that divide us.”
The decision to quiz Mr Hayes has infuriated many Met officers.
A source at the Metropolitan Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, said: “What happened is a gross error of judgment and possibly even an abuse of power.
“The senior officer who decided on this course of action should be called to account.
“It is yet another example of the political correctness which is blighting the Met. It is plain bonkers.”
Mr Hayes, who became the priest at St Mary’s 13 years ago, said one of his main aspirations was to bring people of different backgrounds together. On Saturday night he organised a ‘One World’ evening, where his congregation brought traditional cuisine from their country of origin.
He said: “You can talk about integration until you are blue in the face, but at the end of the day it’s better to do this through actions – like getting people together over some food!”