The multi-faith prayer rooms that aren’t

A porter at a Manchester children’s hospital has been questioned by police on suspicion of “religiously aggravated assault” after a row in the hospital's prayer room.

Joseph Protano, 54, is a devout Catholic who works at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, Pendlebury. He was released without charge by the police but is suspended from his job pending enquiries by the authorities.

The incident centres on a supposedly “multi-faith prayer room”, which three Muslims were using when Mr Protano entered. He asked them to remove a cloth covering from the crucifix. This request resulted in an argument and Mr Protano’s subsequent interrogation by the polce and suspension from his job.

Mr Protano said he was unable to comment due to the ongoing police investigation and an internal hospital inquiry, but a friend told the Manchester Evening News that Mr Protano denied assaulting anyone. “He was shaking like a leaf and spent four hours at the police station.”

The friend said: "Joe goes into the prayer room about six times a day to check the statues in there have not been left covered. He is a Christian, but he also thinks it could be upsetting for visiting parents who want to say a prayer to find the statues covered. He went into the room and there were three adult Muslims already in there. Two were visitors and one was a member of staff. He walked in and said ‘please don’t cover up the statues’. He was only in the room for 30 seconds. There was a statue of a crucifix and one of Our Lady cradling the baby Jesus. They had been covered with a curtain. Also a picture of Our Lady had been placed face down on a table. Joe uncovered the statues, turned the picture up the right way and left.

"Almost immediately the three people in the room followed him outside and there was a confrontation in the corridor. It is alleged Joe assaulted one or more of them but he denies it completely. He says they were verbally abusing him. There are witnesses to what happened who can verify Joe's account."

Mr Protano has worked at the hospital for two years and will be represented by his union if the hospital takes disciplinary action. Meanwhile, staff in the hospital are up in arms about the treatment of Mr Protano, which they consider unfair.

Police plan to interview several witnesses and the complainants before taking any further action.

This is the latest in a series of interests where competing religions have clashed in the workplace. In October a Manchester airport worker was suspended after he hung an image of Jesus on a staffroom wall. Car parks supervisor Gareth Langmead, who is Catholic, was sent home after a Muslim colleague complained. He was suspended for three days while airport chiefs investigated the complaint then reinstated him without a blemish on his record.

The NSS has already reported on another case in which a Pagan clashed with Muslims over the use of a prayer room – with catastrophic financial consequences for all concerned

All over the world, what started out as multi-faith prayer rooms are becoming de facto mosques. See this story from the United States

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “These incidents illustrate that the idea of multi-faith prayer rooms is asking for trouble. Too often the ‘faiths’ will not worship together. The answer is to get rid of them all from workplaces, colleges and other secular spaces and leave worship for church, temple, mosque and home. I predict that the proliferation of prayer rooms is going to provide an increasing focus for conflict.”

21 December 2007