Poll: ‘You’re not welcome’: Church leaders’ message to English Defence League ahead of planned Norwich march

Church leaders have united to deliver a clear message to the English Defence League that it will not be welcomed in Norwich if a planned protest march goes ahead in the city.

The right-wing movement, which opposes what it considers to be the spread of militant Islamism, is planning its first-ever march through Norwich on Saturday, November 10.

It was organised in response to Norwich City Council's decision to ban the Rev Alan Clifford of the Norwich Reformed Church from using a market stall on Hay Hill, where it was believed that anti-Islamic literature was being distributed.

But the EDL, whose marches are often marred by violence, believe the ban infringed freedom of speech and arranged the protest to demonstrate against it.

Now the leaders of all Christian denominations in Norwich have joined other community and religious groups in making it clear that any organisation exhibiting intolerance of any of the city's diverse faiths would not be welcomed.

The following joint statement was issued: 'The intention of the English Defence League to mount a demonstration in Norwich is entirely unwelcome. Norwich has a long history of welcoming strangers, often in considerable numbers. The integration of so many different groups into the life of this fine city is what gives Norwich such richness in its life today. This is a cause for celebration, and we must not allow this honourable tradition to be broken.'

The signatories were:

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-Fr David Bagstaff, diocesan administrator of the Diocese of East Anglia (Roman Catholic)

-Major David Jackson, divisional commander of the Eastern Region, Salvation Army

-The Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich (Church of England)

-The Rev Richard Lewis, regional minister of the Eastern Baptist Association

-John Myhill, on behalf of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

-The Very Rev Graham Smith, Dean of Norwich (Church of England)

-The Rev Graham Thompson, chairman of the East Anglian District of the Methodist Church

-Fr James Walsh, Dean of the Cathedral Church of John the Baptist (Roman Catholic)

-The Rev Paul Whittle, moderator of the Eastern Synod of the United Reformed Church

The Ven Jan McFarlane, Archdeacon of Norwich, added: 'We pride ourselves on being open and welcoming and that is a great tradition that we want to continue, so the idea that there might be a march from an organisation such as the EDL goes against everything that Norwich stands for. All the church leaders signed the statement immediately. They all agreed that they do not want anything that says people here are not welcoming to everybody. It is just not Norwich.'

Mr Whittle said the United Reformed Church, which he represents, had been mistaken for the similarly-named Norwich Reformed Church, which had sparked the controversy.

He said: 'I am aware that there has been some confusion between the two, but the United Reformed Church is a completely distinct entity from the Norwich Reformed Church. We would want to work in partnership with all religious leaders and respect the faiths of others.

'We all really value the diversity that is found in Norwich. We would want to link with people of all faiths and we as church leaders would not be happy to support people who want to break that up; to suggest that people of different faiths are not welcome.'

The EDL said it wanted to exercise its right to protest at what it sees as the 'unfair' treatment of the Norwich Reformed Church.

An EDL spokesman said: 'The English Defence League will be showing their support for the church and protesting at Norwich City Council's actions against the church and everyone else's freedom of speech.'

A Norfolk Constabulary spokesman said the EDL had sent a formal notification that it intends to stage the protest on November 10. 'There is a legal right to freedom of expression and assembly in this country so police will be working to facilitate any peaceful protests or assemblies on this day whilst also seeking to enable others to go about their lawful business,' he said.

'We understand there may be concerns and feelings of vulnerability within a number of communities and we will be looking to work closely with the organisers, our partners and community leaders to help address these.'

Local community organisation We Are Norwich, a coalition of faith groups, trade unions, political parties and activists, has said it will work with the police to hold a peaceful counter-demonstration which celebrates the city's diverse cultures, should the march go ahead.

Meanwhile members of Norwich's Muslim community say they are alarmed at the prospect of the EDL visiting their home city.

Jamal Sealey of Chaplefield Mosque said: 'The Norwich Muslim Community has been a part of this city for over 30 years and welcome the opportunity to work with the other members of the We Are Norwich group to ensure this city remains safe for people of all backgrounds, beliefs and ethnicities.'