Tensions were running high in Finsbury Park after a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the eponymous mosque on 27 November.
But through sport, that great leveller, the area’s Christian and Muslim communities proved that inter-faith relationships remain strong in the neighbourhood.
They came together on Sunday for a football match between St Mark’s Church and the Muslim Welfare House community organisation.
Inter-faith football in Finsbury Park
The game was the brainchild of Sam Rylands, a youth worker at the church, and Sadiq Yusuf, a community worker at Muslim Welfare House.
“Anything that brings people together to break down barriers and show our shared humanity is important, and sport is great for that,” said Rylands.
Teams for the 11-a-side game at Market Road pitch were drawn from young volunteers who lived locally. Muslim Welfare House emerged the winners in a 9-5 goalfest.
Mohamed Jeylani netted a hat-trick for the victors while Abdirhman Ali bagged a brace and Abdurrahman Wanda, Sadiq Jumale, Mohamed Bahir and Mohamed Gure chipped in a goal apiece. For St Mark’s Church, K.C. Chime hit a hat-trick and Michael Ayeni scored twice.
The organisers had been shocked by recent scenes of Islamophobia in football matches across the continent.
Weeks earlier, Polish fans had unveiled a 50-foot banner at a league game between Śląsk Wrocław and Poznań depicting a crusader defending Europe from invading jihadists. Above the image were the words: “When Islamic Plague Floods Europe – Let Us Stand In Defence Of Christianity.”
“Since the attacks in Paris, anti-Muslim prejudice has grown,” said Yusuf. “We wanted to build a bridge between the communities and show unity.”
The number of hate crimes against Muslims in London more than tripled in the ten days following the Paris terror attacks, according to figures from Scotland Yard.
James Kingett, a campaign worker at anti-racism charity Show Racism the Red Card, warned that an extension into sport was inevitable.
“When high-profile incidents occur like in Paris there’s always a spike in anti-Muslim hatred. It would be naïve to think that won’t filter through to football,” he said.
“Sport has the power to unify. The sentiments are very powerful in showing that differences can be put aside, and that we have more in common than what divides us.”
His feelings were echoed by Haroon Jabar, a market insight officer at Sporting Equals, an organisation that promotes diversity through sport.
“Sport is a key way of building bridges between communities, especially within inner-city areas where you’ll find large cohorts of BME groups and white British groups who don’t integrate.”
Faith in football
The efforts of Rylands and Yusuf reflect a wider drive within the game to promote religious inclusivity through football.
In the Premier League, a growing number of clubs provide multifaith prayer rooms in their stadiums and man of the match winners are now offered a non-alcoholic alternative to the traditional bottle of champagne.
Football has a unique ability to thaw religious tensions. While hate crimes against Muslims rose in the UK last year, the Kick It Out campaign reported that they fell by 3.5 per cent at football games.
In Finsbury Park, the game’s success has them already preparing a repeat.
“We’re hoping to make it a regular fixture,” said Yusuf.
“We’re planning to organise another game in the new year and hope to get more churches, synagogues and mosques involved.”
Featured image credit: José Goulão