Sikhs storm theatre to demand closure of play that 'violates their sacred place'

A controversial play depicting sexual abuse and murder in a Sikh temple was at the centre of a clash between artistic freedom and religious sensitivities last night amid threats of more angry protests today following Saturday's violent demonstrations outside Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Thousands of Sikhs from all over Britain are threatening to converge on the theatre tonight if the play, Behzti, (Dishonour) which was written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, continues its sold-out run. The author, a Sikh woman, has also received threats of violence, while the theatre has condemned the protests and warned against "blatant censorship".

On Saturday night more than 400 Sikh demonstrators clashed with police outside the building, forcing the cancellation of that night's performance. Some protesters tried to storm the theatre, attacking security guards, destroying a foyer door and breaking windows in a restaurant. More than 800 people were evacuated. Many of those inside were families with young children attending the theatre's Christmas play, The Witches, which was also stopped before the curtain rose. Two people arrested have been released on police bail; five police officers were also slightly injured. The theatre's management will meet senior officers from West Midlands Police today to decide what happens next. The theatre will be highly reluctant to accede to what it says amounts to censorship while the police will be anxious to avoid further unrest . The play, which was commissioned by the theatre for its studio auditorium and has been well received by critics, is sold out and is due to continue its run until 30 December.

Gurdial Singh Atwal, a former co-chairman of the city's Council of Sikh Gurdwaras (temples) and a local councillor, who has been leading the campaign against the play, warned that ten of thousands of Sikhs could arrive to protest. "This has now become an international matter. I am getting telephone calls from all over the world. The play has to be cancelled or rewritten.''

Asked if he condemned the violence, he said: "Of course I condemn violence wherever it occurs and we are a peaceful and law abiding community. But you should also consider who is provoking this violence - who is creating this anger but the author herself.'' He added: "This is not just about Sikhs. If this was set in a church or a mosque or any other place of worship there would be the same strong feelings.''

There are 40-50,000 Sikhs in Birmingham, with more than double that number in the wider West Midlands area.

Ms Bhatti said she had been advised not to comment because of threats which had been made to her but referred The Independent to the foreword of her play, in which she wrote: "I believe that drama should be provocative and relevant. I wrote Behzti because I passionately oppose injustice and hypocrisy. The writers I admire are courageous ... Such writers sometimes cause offence. But perhaps those who are affronted by the menace of dialogue and discussion, need to be offended."

Before the play began its run on 9 December, Sikh leaders asked the theatre to consider changes to the crucial scenes set in a temple, perhaps relocating them to a community centre or similar place. Some changes were made, but the writer and the theatre refused to concede on the crucial temple scene. The theatre also invited the Sikh community to write a statement expressing its views on the play and this has been given to every audience member and also read out in the auditorium before each performance. Despite this, there were a number of protests during the week which progressively grew in size, culminating in Saturday's disturbances.

The theatre said in a statement: "The characters in the play are not intended to be representative of the Sikh community, they are works of fiction characterising the fallibility of human nature and the injustice and hypocrisy that exists in the real world."

In a city where ethnic minorities account for almost half the population and with a strong record on good community relations, the Sikhs have received support from the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham. The Most Rev Vincent Nichols said the Sikh community had acted in a "reasonable and measured way'' in representing their concerns over the play. He added: "Such a deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place of the Sikh religion demeans the sacred places of every religion. People of all faiths, therefore, will be offended by this presentation."