CHURCH leaders have expressed concern at the news that far-right party the BNP have opened a new branch in Darwen.

The party this week announced that Darwen would be their "number one" target for next year's elections and that party members would be canvassing the town in the coming months.

The Rev Kevin Arkell, of St Peter's and St Paul's, said: "I think Darwen people are very sensible and that we can trust them to do the right thing.

"Darwen worked well for years as an independent borough and it has worked well with Blackburn. A lot of good things are happening at the moment.

"My knowledge of the Darwen people is that they understand the Christian principals of love, tolerance, respect and open-mindedness. I hope and pray that they will see the progress Darwen has been making without the BNP."

John East, for the Central United Reformed Church, said: "The United Reformed Church, Church of England and Methodist churches in Darwen have always ministered to the local community and have constantly campaigned for social justice and improved conditions for all in the town.

"We consider the rights of people living in the town to be very important and already lobby local councillors, MPs and business leaders for better conditions on a wide range of issues. We feel strongly that the Darwen people have always had a variety of cultural values and a real sense of community."

Terry Garley, county ecumenical development officer for Churches Together in Lancashire, said: "We encourage Darwen people to take responsibility for their lives and the lives of others no matter what social or cultural background they may have."

Simon Bennett, a Burnley-based BNP organiser, yesterday announced that an anonymous e-mail declaring the formation of a party branch in the town was true.

Mr Bennett said: "We will be drumming up support for the party in Darwen, recruiting volunteers and building towards the 2004 elections where we hope to have a number of candidates."

Although no figure was offered by the BNP figurehead, Mill Hill councillor Robin Evans estimates his party will stand in five of Darwen's six wards - Sunnyhurst, Sudell, Whitehall, Earcroft and East Rural.

Mr Evans, who used to live in Darwen, said: "Darwen will be a good place for us to mount support and it's our number one target.

"The town has been neglected for many years and the council haven't done anything about it until the regeneration plan this year.

"As a party we will address those problems and turn Darwen into what it should be. We will act as a more practical voice for the town."

Mr Bennett announced there was "no magic formula" to the BNPs campaign. Although the party will have no permanent base in the town, party volunteers will recruit in Darwen on a daily basis.

He said: "We wanted to target an area that had a natural identity and Darwen has exactly that. But the community is suffering from the influx of asylum seekers and this is just one of our campaigning issues.

"There's no magic formula to our campaign. We will go out and canvas on people's doorsteps, go out into the community and hold meetings and hand out leaflets."