A claim by the British National Party that it is 'defending Britain's Christian culture' has been called 'absurd' but also 'dangerous' by the religious thinktank Ekklesia.
The claim by the BNP came with news that the party plans to include in its campaign material for May's local authority elections one of the cartoons which sparked outrage among Muslims across the world, showing the Prophet Mohamed with a bomb in his turban
One leaflet asks voters: "Are you concerned about the growth of Islam in Britain? Make Thursday 4 May Referendum Day." It adds: "We owe it to our children to defend our Christian culture."
This is not the first time that Ekklesia has countered such claims by the BNP. In the run up to the European elections, Ekklesia's director Jonathan Bartley exposed the arguments of a BNP press officer during a debate on Radio 5 Live.
The thinktank observes what it sees as a growing trend for the BNP to employ religious arguments. It also notes that the far right party appears to be involving itself with extreme Christian groups - and suggests that some of these groups are making it too easy for them to do so.
Recently BNP members have been observed taking part in protests outside theatres against 'Jerry Springer: The Opera'.
Ekklesia's director Jonathan Bartley said; "The claim that the BNP are in some way defending 'Christian culture' is absurd. As the main Christian denominations in this country have repeatedly pointed out, the far right's policies are completely at odds with the Christian faith."
"There does however appear to be a worrying trend for the BNP to try and use religion in this way - and churches clearly have a crucial role to play in exposing their arguments."
Labour MPs are reportedly urging their party's leaders to take more seriously the threat from the BNP in its working-class heartlands.
Mainstream parties say the BNP's campaigning has become more sophisticated. The party is using telephone canvassing for the first time and playing down its hostility to blacks and Asians in order to focus on Muslims. Other campaign literature contrasts the jailing of the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza for inciting murder and racial hatred with the partial acquittal of Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, who faces a retrial on unresolved racial hatred charges on 15 May.
The BNP, which now has 19 councillors, is expected to focus efforts in areas where it has performed strongly in the past such as parts of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the West Midlands and east London, where it won 35 per cent of the vote in recent by-elections in Barking. Its share of the vote rose from 1 per cent at the 1992 general election to 4.2 per cent last year.
Labour MPs are worried that the BNP could capture more council seats by exploiting the disenchantment with the Government among traditional Labour supporters and stoking fears about the Muslim community. The MPs fear that Tony Blair's determination to retain the support of Middle England could leave Labour vulnerable to a BNP advance in working-class areas.
Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham, said: "The BNP's pitch is to be more Labour than New Labour with a virulently anti-Muslim agenda." He said Labour's strategy of targeting swing voters in marginal seats was "diametrically at odds" with the need to reassure traditional supporters about the Government's record.
Sadiq Khan, MP for Tooting, called on Labour to agree pacts with Liberal Democrats and Greens under which one of them would take on the BNP in its target seats and the others would stand down. Such a strategy helped to defeat the BNP in a Barking by-election last year, when it tried to exploit the London bombings. Mr Khan said: "We have not successfully tackled the new BNP, who are suit-wearing men, and some women, Oxbridge graduates, who talk in pleasant language."
Ian McCartney, the Labour chairman, said: "The BNP's strategy is straight out of the Nazi textbook. Their tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated but they always involve blaming one part of the community for local problems. They take up legitimate grievances and they exploit those issues for their own racist aims."
A BNP spokesman said it would campaign mainly on local issues and denied it was "exploiting" recent events. "We are saying that there are worries in society about these issues," he added.