In a county renowned for embracing everyone, it seems that some residents have decided Muslims are no longer welcome. Jonathan Brown investigates an outbreak of rural hate crimes
A disused chapel in a sparsely populated hamlet far from the summer tourist crowds has emerged as a crucial testing ground of Cornwall's reputation as an easy-going haven for those looking to escape the pressures of urban life – whatever their race.
For amid green rolling hills just a few miles outside the cathedral city of Truro, the slate-roofed Bible Christian church at Quenchwell, near Carnon Downs, is under sustained assault from racists opposed to a planned community centre for the county's Asians.
The third attack in recent weeks was discovered in the early hours of Thursday morning. Obscene graffiti defaming Islam and espousing the cause of Cornish nationalism was splattered across the walls of the chapel. In earlier incidents a pig's head was nailed to the door and "KKK" – Ku Klux Klan – was painted in red gloss on an outside wall. The most recent grafitti included BNP slogans.
The attacks have shocked the Cornish establishment. Police chiefs, politicians (including the head of Mebyon Kernow, the Party for Cornwall), Church leaders and local people have all condemned the desecration and Islamophobia.
One man has been arrested and released on bail. But the attacks have continued, and police, who are treating them as "critical" and linked, appear powerless to stop them recurring. Officers believe residents of the affluent surrounding villages hold the key to the case.
"Somebody in the local community will have an idea who is responsible," said Superintendent Julie Whitmarsh. "I know people would not want to be associated with an individual who is responsible for this."
For Tipo Choudhury, a local restaurateur who bought the chapel and has become the reluctant voice of the Asian communities here, the events have come as a terrible shock. The British-born father of three has been raising his family in nearby Penzance since the mid-1980s. "In 22 years I have had no uncomfortable moments, until now. When you suddenly get called a 'Paki bastard' here in Cornwall it makes you jump. This sort of thing just does not happen here," he said. In addition to the attacks on the chapel, he was also racially abused by a passing motorcyclist while standing outside the building. "Racism is showing its ugly head. It shows prejudice is alive and kicking," he added.
Mr Choudhury is at pains to point out that the centre will not be a mosque but a centre for all of Cornwall's Asians, though he concedes Bengali Muslims make up the majority of the scattered ethnic minority population, most of whom work in Indian restaurants or in the Royal Cornwall Hospital. He says some 2,000 people will use the centre, including Buddhists and Hindus. Asians have no dedicated facilities, with the nearest mosque a two-hour drive away.
But not everyone is convinced that the decision to locate the centre in Quenchwell is for the best. A local Tory councillor, Tomas Hill, had planned to hold a public meeting to discuss concerns about the scheme. He was forced to cancel it as the police investigation intensified.
"People are afraid to speak out because of political correctness," he said. "Some residents have intimated to me privately that it would change the character of the area. In light of the Exeter bombing, which happened only a week or so before it was announced, it was unfortunate timing. There has been unease among certain quarters."
Dick Cole, the leader of Mebyon Kernow, disassociated Cornish nationalists from the attacks, which he described as "a crude attempt to foster division and intolerance" that must be resisted "at all costs". The local MP, Andrew George, president of the Council for Racial Equality in Cornwall, said the attacks had "brought shame on us all".
One of the most telling and impassioned condemnations came from Truro police inspector Mark Richards, who told local reporters the graffiti was offensive "not only to Asians and Asian religions, but also to Christians and Cornish nationalists whose name has been taken in vain".
There is a growing sense of alarm. The story has been picked up in Pakistan and the Middle East but is also being exploited by the British National Party website, where those who condemn the attacks are accused of "sickening hypocrisy" because of an alleged failure to condemn in similarly vociferous terms the recent Exeter bombing.
Despite the hand-wringing of public figures there is evidence that the South-west has a growing racism problem. Figures released by Devon and Cornwall police last month under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that racist crime has risen by 130 per cent. In 2000 there were 349 recorded incidents; this figure had risen to 802 by last year.
Attacks on eastern European migrants have swelled the numbers. An assault on a Lithuanian migrant worker in Redruth in February led to the victim being left in a coma.
Police say much of the increase is because victims are more prepared to report abuse. According to the most recent census figures, 97.1 per cent of people in Cornwall classify themselves as white British, with 99 per cent classed as white. The Asian population is scattered across the county in groups of just a few families. As a result, said Mr Choudhury, they struggle to gain any kind of foothold in the political decision-making process. This lack of "voting muscle" he says, has hampered the search for a permanent cultural centre following the forced closure of an earlier community base in Truro.
It is a typical story, said Victor Downer, director of the newly-founded anti-racism group Unity Cornwall, who believes that many of the problems faced by the county's ethnic communities have not been reported.
"Rural racism is different from what you expect in cities like London. Here it has to do with power. You will find a lot of people who are highly qualified working in the very worst jobs – cleaning toilets, picking vegetables from the ground," he said.
But the latest spate of attacks have left many deeply worried. "If people are prepared to do this, to sneak out in the middle of the night and run the risk of arrest, what next? The community is feeling very vulnerable," he said.