Birmingham education authorities buckled to pressure from sectarian hardliners and blocked a Muslim sect from being represented on an interfaith council, it is claimed.
Members of Birmingham's Ahmadiyya Muslim Community were told that in order to be represented on the city's Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) they would have to agree not to identify themselves as Muslims, after a threatened walkout from other Muslim members of the committee.
The Ahmadiyya are accused of apostasy by some other Muslims, who say they do not regard Mohammed as the final prophet. They have faced decades of violent persecution in Pakistan, and in Glasgow an Ahmadi shopkeeper was recently stabbed to death by an Islamic extremist who claimed his victim had "disrespected the Prophet [Mohammad]."
Fareed Ahmad, a member of the Ahmadiyya National Executive Committee, said the Labour-led council had failed to defend religious tolerance.
"SACRE is there to promote inclusion and respect of different faiths and to give in to such pressure undermines what SACRE stands for," he told IBTimes UK.
Emails obtained by IBTimes UK reveal that Muslim members of the city's SACRE committee threatened to walk out if the Ahmadi were admitted as followers of Islam. In one message, Councillor Barry Henley, Chairman of SACRE in Birmingham, said that the body would welcome an Ahmadi representative provided they describe themselves as "Ahmadiyya Community of similar wording and not Ahmadiyya Muslim Community."
He claims that if he allowed the Ahmadiyya to be admitted he would be "breaking the law because the other Muslim representatives would leave."
The authority rejected a new application for membership from the Ahmadiyya submitted in July.
Barrister Neil Addison, who specialises in British law and religion, said the committee had broken the law in excluding the Ahmadi: "It is endorsing sectarianism, we wouldn't allow it with anyone else in the UK, and it is not lawful.
"The Ahmadiyya are becoming subject in Britain to the same kind of discrimination they suffered in Pakistan.
"We are lacking the moral courage to stand for our own principles. The Ahmadiyya are permitted in this country to call themselves what they like and live in peace, which they do," he said.
SACREs include representatives drawn from cities' religious faith communities, who are consulted on how religion is taught to children as part of school syllabuses.
The dispute erupted in 2012, when the Ahmadiyya, whose community has about a thousand members in Birmingham, first applied to sit on SACRE's 'committee A', alongside other faith leaders.
The following year the city changed its SACRE constitution, meaning only candidates chosen by committees representing faith communities would be considered for membership. Members of Birmingham SACRE's Muslim Liaison Committee have allegedly refused to back Ahmadi membership.
The Ahmadiyya submitted a fresh bid in July, only for SACRE to emphasise again that they would require the backing of other Muslim members. "We are caught in a loop, we have said to them we need to find another way to be nominated," said Ahmad.
Ahmad said that it was vital for Birmingham council to take action and defend religious inclusion amid increasing extremism. "We have always said the Ahmadi issue is a sort of canary in the mine. If there are problems with us there will be wider problems," said Ahmad. "We don't want this to set a precedent for [the exclusion] other communities as well," he said.
Who are the Ahmadi Muslims and why are they persecuted?
Founded in British controlled India in the late 19th century, the Ahmadiyya take their name from founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who died in 1908. Identifying itself as a Muslim movement and following the teachings of the Koran, it regards Ahmad as the long-awaited mahdi, or Muslim saviour.
However, elements of mainstream Islam and orthodox Muslims in Asian countries such as Pakistan reject the notion of Ahmad as mahdi, and Ahmadis in general, regarding the group as heretics and subjecting them to persecution.
Matt Nelson, a reader in politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies said that anti-Ahmadi rhetoric had long been used as a "dog whistle" by Muslim hardliners in Pakistan, where followers of the sect are forbidden by law to call themselves Muslims.
"Those groups who want to make a point of saying they are the most pious, they are the most orthodox and so on to rally a constituency as big as possible around themselves, start with the Ahmadiyya and ratchet from there.
Under UK law, he said, the anti-Ahmadiyya lobby "would have no leg to stand on when drawing doctrinal boundaries of the type that appear to be emerging in Birmingham." He continued: "we have a law in this country that people can articulate their faith how they like in peaceful ways, no matter what."
The 2014 Trojan Horse scandal saw a plot to introduce an Islamist ethos at several of the city's schools exposed, in which other faiths and Muslim sects were denounced. Parliamentary Secretary of State Lord Nash in the wake of the scandal called for schools to actively promote "mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs."
Labour MP Siobahn McDonagh, a former member of the House of Commons Education Select Committee which investigated the Trojan Horse scandal, said the actions of Birmingham council undermined the message of tolerance at the heart of SACRE.
"The whole point of SACRE as I understand it is to get the widest possible contributions from the faith communities on how religious education is undertaken in our schools," she said. "The idea that you would block a faith or part of a faith is against the whole spirit of the institution quite apart from it being completely out of keeping with British values."
In an emailed statement, Councillor Henley said: "Due to legal issues, it is not possible to comment on claims being made at this time." Birmingham City Council refused to disclose what the legal issues are, but they are believed to be related to a request for judicial intervention previously considered by Birmingham's Ahmadiyya.