Reporter JAMES COX talks to leaders of the Muslim community in Chesham to find out what holds it so firmly together

THE Muslim community in Chesham is compact and tight-knit, totalling about 1,500 people who hail mainly from just two towns in Pakistan.

It is built fundamentally on the religious and cultural principles of Islam and the traditional notions of the family. However, the community works hard to maintain its identity and beliefs.

One of Chesham's most prominent Muslim leaders is Mohammed Bhatti who is at the forefront of the continuing development and well-being of the community in Chesham.

He explained: "The Muslim community really is very well integrated in Chesham. Our main concern at the moment is family unity.

"It is the priority for the family head to keep family unity strong and also to teach them their culture and religion, then our community will not grow apart

"We are a very traditional people and our culture is very important but religion is the priority and it must remain so."

Cllr Bhatti has lived in Chesham for more than 20 years and was the first member of the town's Muslim community to win a seat on Chesham Town Council and Chiltern District Council.

He explained that most of Chesham's Muslims come from one of two medium-sized towns, Rawalpindi and Mirpur, in Pakistan. A smaller number of others hail from the troubled region of Kashmir.

Rawalpindi lies just south of Pakistan's capital city Islamabad, in the north, while Mirpur is situated further south towards Karachi.

Cllr Bhatti, of Lansdowne Road, Chesham, added that people started arriving in Britain from Pakistan in the 1950s after the Queen invited military servicemen and their families from Britain's former colonies.

He continued: "At first people arrived and settled in places like Slough, Hillingdon and Southall because they were near to the airport and there were jobs.

"But soon others began to come towards places like Chesham and High Wycombe."

By 1970 a mosque had been founded at Waterside, Chesham, where it remained until it moved to its present site in Bellingdon Road.

The mosque forms the heart of any Muslim community, but in a town like Chesham, which is home to a relatively small number of Muslim households, about 150 in all, it is a vital source of religious guidance and cultural education.

Cllr Bhatti explained: "The mosque moved from Waterside in 1979 because the Muslim community settled mostly around the area nearer to where it is now.

"The mosque plays a very central role in the Muslim community. There we can go and pray and our children can get an education. Adults can go there to discuss their matters and issues for the Asian community.

"It is a place we can go and feel independent, discuss our issues and provide religious education for the community," he added.

Muslims are meant to pray five times a day and, whenever possible, prayer should be taken at the mosque.

But Muslims can pray at home except on the main day of prayer, Friday, when worshippers should visit the mosque. This is done much in the same way as a Christian will go to church on Sunday or how a Jew will go to the synagogue on a Saturday.

Muslim prayer is led by the Imam, a religious teacher who is an expert on the Qur'an, Islam's holy book.

Chesham's Imam is Arif Hussain Saeedi. He studied the Qur'an in Pakistan for ten years before coming to Britain 16 years ago.

After school all Muslim children go to the mosque for two hours religious and cultural education most of them speak Urdu, Punjab and English as well as being able to read Arabic.

As a mark of respect traditional dress is always worn for prayer.

However, one of the most important functions of the mosque in Chesham, apart from religious guidance and teaching, is to promote and safeguard the interests of Muslims in the town.

This is done with the election of a mosque committee every two years.

Cllr Bhatti explained: "The committee is made up of people who represent the interests of the Muslim community in Chesham. The committee liaises with statutory and voluntary bodies like charities, the police and councils to deal with issues.

"The committee really is very, very important because if people have a problem they usually go and ask advice from them. People can expect the committee to sort their problems out."

Mohammed Asraf, vice-chairman of Chesham's mosque committee, added: "We are happy in Chesham because it is a peaceful town where we can get on with things."