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The deputy leader of anti-Islam group Britain First has said towns across the UK should expect to see more Christian patrols and street protests than ever this year, claiming its membership had swelled "by the thousands". Jayda Fransen declared 2016 would be "Britain First's year" and warned the country was heading towards "civil war" with British Muslims.
It comes days after the group was criticised for "inflaming tensions" when it patrolled through Bury Park in Luton, handing out its anti-Islam newspaper to Muslims while carrying Christian crosses. A video of the march, now viewed on Facebook 21 million times, saw Fransen and around 20 other Britain First activists confronted by angry residents who the group claim pelted them with eggs and hurled abuse, leading to them being given a police escort out of the area.
In an interview with IBTimes UK, Fransen insisted her group "did not spread hate" and said it was undeterred by the criticism following the "patrol", including from a local Luton priest who called for people to work towards a "cohesive society". The 29-year-old, who is the only female figurehead of a right-wing movement in the UK, instead suggested UK towns would see an unprecedented level of action by Britain First this year.
She said: "In recent months, our group has grown enormously, with membership swelling by the thousands. We now have Britain First brigades across the country and it's common knowledge our social media reach is bigger than any other political party.
"People can expect a large amount of action for 2016, it's going to be our year. We have so much planned and there are now so many people in our group at an activist level. Our country and Europe is heading for a civil war. Our leaders have sold us out and the way to save us is to head for the streets."
Britain First, which was launched as a political party in 2011 by former members of the now-defunct British National Party (BNP), has been described by its critics as "far-right", "racist" and a front for "fascists" – all terms denied by the group. Its policies include wanting to bring back national service, completely halting immigration and reinstating the death penalty for paedophiles, terrorists and murderers.
But its attack on Islam – which it describes as a "cancer of the world" and wants to ban in the UK – has caused the greatest controversy. One of the group's founding members, former BNP member Jim Dowson, said in a 2014 interview that Britain First activists were part of a "holy war" and "crusade".
Over the past five years, the group has targeted areas with significant Muslim communities, taking part in "Christian patrols", "mosque invasions" (where activists hand out anti-Islam leaflets to Muslims during prayer) and national protest rallies.
Tell Mama, the UK anti-Islamophobia charity, attacked Britain First's latest "Christian patrol" in Bury Park, saying it was "just as divisive" as Muslim patrols that made the headlines in 2013 when a group of Muslims hurled homophobic abuse at Londoners and tried to stop bystanders from drinking alcohol.
A spokesman for Tell Mama said: "Sadly, it is now 2016 and these inflammatory actions continue with Britain First trying to paint themselves as 'defenders' of Christian values, something that they are far from. They continue to walk into areas, stir up unrest and walk away leaving local communities to pick up the pieces. It is high time that action is taken against Britain First and the way that it seeks to create and foment disturbances in communities."
Tell Mama says it fears future action by the group, fuelled by its growth in popularity on social media, may lead to "serious unrest" in the UK.
While Britain First would not reveal to IBTimes UK its exact membership numbers, choosing instead to say its in the "thousands", its social media reach is now bigger than many of the UK's mainstream political parties. It's Facebook page has over 1.2 million "likes" – more than the Conservative and Labour parties combined – and its videos are viewed by millions.
At the end of January, the group plans to transfer this online popularity to street-level activism by holding a national march through the West Yorkshire town of Dewsbury, which Fransen described as a "hotbed of Islamic extremism". Local councillors in the town have already slammed the planned protest, accusing the group of "spreading hate".
Fransen said: "The indigenous people in Britain don't want their towns turned into Muslim ghettos. It doesn't look like Britain anymore. Dewsbury has Islamic extremists coming out of the woodwork so we want to march through the town centre. I'm not concerned about any negative reaction, I'm concerned about my country. We always behave impeccably on the marches, it's the opposition to us that's the problem."
The deputy leader has said in previous interviews she is willing to die for her cause and puts her faith in God to choose the time of her death.
A law graduate who grew up in south-east London, Fransen joined the group in 2013 and became its deputy the following year. She was a former member of the English Defence League (EDL), which she says she left after its rallies gained notoriety for being alcohol-fuelled and violent.
She stood in the Rochester and Strood by-election in 2014 on behalf of Britain First but gained just 56 votes – less than the Monster Raving Loony Party. Fransen insisted the election was a success, however, saying: "It gave us a platform to reach people. I was encouraging everyone to vote Ukip as we weren't under any illusions that we would win."
Britain First's leader, ex-BNP member Paul Golding, will hope to reach more people with his group's right-wing message as he canvases in the London Mayoral election in May.
His group's anti-Islam message comes as another right-wing group, Pegida UK, prepares to hold its first anti-immigration rally in Birmingham, another area with a significant Muslim community. The group's figurehead is former EDL leader Tommy Robinson.