Camberley mosque inquiry divides town

By Nick Tarver
BBC News

image captionChristians supporting the mosque sang while EDL members protested

Controversial plans to redevelop a mosque in Camberley are now in the hands of a planning inspector after a seven-day public inquiry.

For residents of the leafy Surrey town, plans to replace a listed Victorian school with a mosque have proved divisive.

Supporters argue the building, which has been used as a mosque since 1996, insufficiently caters for worshippers.

Washing facilities are not up to scratch and there is little room for women to pray.

But opponents claim the plans for a new building are unnecessary.

Five domes and two minarets towering 100ft in the air have been proposed.

'Nervous wait'

The plans were originally rejected by Surrey Heath Borough Council in 2010.

The decision was appealed against by the Bengali Welfare Association (BWA), the group behind the project, resulting in an inquiry which finished on Thursday.

Abdul Wasey Chowdrey, of BWA, said it now faced a "nervous wait" for the inspector's decision.

image captionThe planned mosque would replace the building which has been used for worship for 15 years

"Nobody knows what is going to happen but we're confident our case is just," he said.

"[The current mosque] is a school building and not really suitable. If we get a positive result we still have to fundraise to build the new mosque."

The issue has proven very contentious in Camberley. Last year hundreds of people queued outside the council building to hear the authority reject the plans.

The proposals have also resulted in some perhaps unlikely alliances being formed.

Dr Taj Hargey, an imam and Islamic scholar, argued at the inquiry that the proposed minarets and domes were unnecessary.

Dr Hargey, who is also a chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford, said the proposals had been detrimental to community relations.

"It destroyed whatever harmony there was between the Muslim community and Christians in Camberley - it's gone," he said.

"This is knocking down childhood memories and I can relate to that - I wouldn't want my school knocked down.

"Local people feel under attack by this mosque. It's a total disregard for their heritage."

Conservation area

At the inquiry Mr Hargey argued that minarets and domes, although traditional, were not required for a mosque.

"The BWA wants to leave a legacy," he said. "But it will only aggravate tensions in the community."

image captionSeveral generations of Camberley residents attended the school before it closed in 1996

However, Mr Chowdrey disagreed that the proposals had fractured relations in the town.

"We have very good relations with each other," he said. "Even after we finished the inquiry we all stood together, talked to each other and shook hands."

Outside the inquiry on Wednesday a group of English Defence League members protested.

They were opposed by a group of Christians on the other side of the road who sang hymns and called for local residents to be more accommodating.

One of them, Carole Cole, said: "The mosque has been there for years they just want to change the building.

"Whether there's a mosque or not is not the issue - the issue is how people respond to one another."

A campaign group - Save Our School - has gathered a 7,000-signature petition against the plans.

Its chairwoman, Melanie Longden, said most opponents had no problems with the Bengali community.

"There's a lot at stake here for both sides," she said. "A building gets lost forever for one side, or built forever for the other.

"Whilst they are seeking somewhere to worship we want to save that building. It's listed and it's in a conservation area."

The planning inspector is not expected to make his decision for several weeks.

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