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Bishop: Rioting raises religious concerns

By Andrew Watson, Special to CNN
  • Bishop of Aston: Feelings running high in community where deaths occurred
  • Dignified intervention of victim's father has helped ease tensions, he says
  • Far-right activists contributed to community tensions prior to riots, he says
  • Birmingham
  • England
  • Religion

Editor's Note: Andrew Watson is the Bishop of Aston in the Diocese of Birmingham, UK. He was formerly a vicar in London, and is a musician, author and father of four.

Birmingham, England (CNN) -- I spent most of yesterday in Winson Green, Birmingham, following the deaths of three young British men in the early hours of the morning. I visited the small mosque where two of the men (brothers aged 32 and 30) had been regular worshippers, and where both their uncle and older brother were in a state of profound shock and grief.

I then attended a gathering hastily convened by the local member of parliament -- taking place in a room above a local supermarket - followed by a much larger public meeting with the police later in the day. About 150 people crammed into the community hall for the police meeting, with twice as many gathered outside.

Feelings were understandably running very high, with the grief and anger of the community expressed in equal measure. There were voices calling for retaliation, but these were increasingly drowned out by other voices (both old and younger) urging restraint.

It helped that the police were able to announce that they'd launched a murder inquiry after the death of the three young men (with very large resources deployed to catching the perpetrator), as earlier media reports of a hit-and-run accident had caused outrage.

The dignified intervention of the father of the youngest of the three men at various points during the day was also extraordinarily helpful in supporting the cause of peace; and it was a great tribute to him and others like him that the streets of Winson Green remained quiet last night.

The background to these troubles lies partly in the spate of disorder across the country, but also in the continuing sense of urban deprivation in Winson Green and many other districts of Birmingham -- some of them among the poorest in the country.

Winson Green itself has seen a significant growth in youth unemployment in the past few years, and feelings of anxiety are exacerbated by the wholly unwelcome attentions of the far-right English Defence League, and by occasional tensions between the black and South Asian communities.

On the night that the deaths occurred members of the South Asian community had been standing outside their businesses to protect them from the nearby rioting and looting of previous nights.

The fact that three young men had been killed while doing just that, led to criticisms about the deployment of police and the perceived soft tactics employed across the city. Confusion was also expressed about the distinction between lawful self-protection and illegal vigilantism - an area in which the law of England is notoriously vague.

From a personal perspective, it was good to be able to express our Christian solidarity with the grief of a whole community and to affirm the call to non-retaliation issued by a number of inspiring community elders.

Christians, Muslims and others share similar concerns about family life, mutual respect, and the need for religious faith to give structure, purpose and hope to our lives; and while it would be naive to identify just one cause for the spate of rioting and looting over the course of this week, and its most ugly manifestation in the form of these three needless deaths, the increasing marginalization of faith in our society remains an issue of shared (and grave) concern.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Watson.

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