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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 March 2008, 00:33 GMT
Battle for Britain's largest mosque
By Jack Izzard
BBC News

A Muslim missionary group is hoping to build Britain's biggest mosque on the site of a former chemicals factory in east London. The project has not even left the drawing board, but it has already run into controversy.

The proposed site for Abbey Mills mosque
The proposed mosque would be the biggest in the country

Despite its rustic sounding name the Abbey Mills mosque is in the heart of London's East End.

Every two minutes it shakes as a train stops at the West Ham Tube station next door.

But inside the atmosphere is one of quiet reverence. The neatly arranged prayer mats and the prayer niche facing Mecca give it a timeless feel.

Outside it is showing its age. The ramshackle brick building is all that is left of a demolished chemical factory.

Despite this, up to 3,500 Muslims a week come here to pray and discuss their faith.

'Big plans'

The missionary group which owns it, Tablighi Jamaat, now wants to replace it with a giant mosque with room for 12,000 people.

We want to show that this new mosque can be just as much a part of the community as a football ground
Faisal Iqbal

It hopes that as Britain's biggest mosque it will be a beacon for Muslims across the country - even for foreign visitors to the 2012 London Olympics, which is due to be held a stone's throw away in Stratford.

But some local residents are worried about the impact of such a huge place of worship.

Some unflattering newspaper reports have described the planned building as a "megamosque".

"That's an exaggeration." says Faisal Iqbal, a Tablighi Jamaat trustee.

He says: "We do have big plans. But we have a big site - 18 acres. As well as the mosque there will be a school, conference centre and landscaped garden.

"The mosque's maximum capacity will be 12,000. But most weeks there will be fewer than half that number here."

'Highly secretive'

Supporters insist the giant mosque will benefit everyone in the local community - not just Muslims. Its gardens and conference facilities will be open to everyone, they say.

Tablighi Jamaat preaches separatism by calling Muslims to separate themselves out from the local community
Councillor Alan Craig

But the plan has attracted fierce criticism from some people in the area.

Alan Craig is a member of the local Newham Borough Council. He says such a huge focal point for one religious group could upset East London's multicultural mix.

Mr Craig, leader of the Christian People's Alliance, says: "I love the East End's diversity. Tablighi Jamaat preaches separatism by calling Muslims to separate themselves out from the local community.

"I don't want that to happen here. It's a highly secretive organisation and I am suspicious of its motives."

Planning wait

Mr Craig, who is the Christian Choice candidate in London's mayoral election, has been accused of trying to make political capital from the controversy.

This is a rundown part of the capital, and the huge redevelopment unleashed by the preparations for the Olympics is generally popular.

Few people argue about the benefits of decontaminating this barren site and regenerating the derelict buildings.

But convincing some of the merits of a giant mosque is proving a harder sell. The plan is still firmly on the drawing board, and the formal planning process may not start for up to a year.

For now the mosque's supporters have promised to consult with local people before submitting the plans for approval.

As Mr Iqbal puts it: "No-one is afraid of sports stadiums which hold many times more people. We want to show that this new mosque can be just as much a part of the community as a football ground."

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