The bishops vs the BBC

London, UK - Two months ago, Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, made a short trip from the Beeb's headquarters in Shepherd's Bush to Lambeth Palace for a private meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams had a blunt message to deliver: the "Christian voice", the Archbishop suggested, risked being "sidelined" by the BBC and Mr Thompson needed to do something about it.

At the time there was increasing speculation over who would become the corporation's new head of religious programming. With one exception (the appointment of an agnostic, Alan Bookbinder, in 2001) the BBC's head of religion had always professed a Christian faith. But this time executives at the corporation – once famously described as being "hideously white" – were considering a radical departure from their usual tack.

The front runner for the job this time around was Aaqil Ahmed, a 39-year-old Muslim who had carved out a successful career at Channel 4 creating critically acclaimed and often controversial religious programming such as Inside the Mind of the Suicide Bomber and the Bafta-winning Saving Africa's Witch Children.

As someone with a long track record of encouraging interfaith dialogue, Dr Williams would have had no problem with a Muslim commissioner as long as he or she continued to cover the Christian faith adequately.

But some Christian lobby groups and right-wing commentators were incensed. Only the previous year the BBC's flagship religious programme Songs of Praise had been handed over to Tommy Nagra, a Sikh. Now arguably one of the most influential, non-ecclesiastical religious positions in the country looked like it was going to a non-Christian.

Despite an on-going whispering campaign against Ahmed, news leaked out on Monday night that he had finally been given the newly created role of commissioning editor, religion, and head of religion and ethics. His predecessor, the 47-year-old Methodist lay preacher Michael Wakelin, had been made to reapply for his position during a major restructuring of the commissioning department and did not get the job.

In media circles head of religion at the BBC is often referred to as the corporation's most poisoned chalice, one of those positions where it is virtually impossible to please every interested party.

Lambeth Palace declined to comment publicly on the appointment yesterday but Michael Nazir-Ali, the outgoing Bishop of Rochester, who has a long history of warning that Christianity is being marginalised in Britain at the expense of deference to minority faiths, took the opportunity to remind the BBC: "Three-quarters of the people of Britain declare themselves to be Christian. The BBC must take their needs into account. Whatever his personal faith, the new head of religious programming is duty bound, therefore, to provide adequate time and fair representation to the Christian faith and to Christian concerns."

The Right Rev Nigel McCulloch, the Bishop of Manchester, was similarly circumspect. "The Church of England takes a close interest in the way Christianity, and other faiths, are portrayed by the BBC across all its programming," he said. "We are also interested in its specifically religious output, in light of this country's Judeo-Christian heritage."

Friends of Ahmed say they were astonished by the amount of behind-the-scenes opposition to his appointment purely based on his non-Christian faith. "In the run-up to this appointment there was a remarkably unpleasant campaign against Aaqil from some quarters of the press. It was disgusting," said one friend who has previously worked with Ahmed. "His religion has nothing to do with his ability to commission good programmes; it's a complete red herring. During his time at Channel 4 he helped produce some of the best religious content on television, much of which was about Christianity."

Ahmed himself believes his Muslim faith has allowed him to approach religious content in an innovative way, particularly when it comes to Islam. During an interview with The Independent while he was at Channel 4, he said: "Our output is risk-taking whether it be Christian or Islamic. Being a Muslim doesn't make it easier for me to make programmes [on Islam] but it has enabled me to understand how to tell a story a different way."

Throughout his time at Channel 4, Ahmed regularly commissioned programmes on Christianity as well as tackling the more controversial elements of Islam. If anything, it was other minority faiths such as Hinduism and Sikhism that were noticeably absent during his tenure.

Jeremy Dear, whose company Pioneer Productions filmed Christianity: A History for Channel 4, said Ahmed would reinvigorate religious programming. "I think it's a brilliant appointment," he said. "What Aaqil does best is show viewers how relevant religion is today and not portray it as some sort of historical curio."

Sunny Hundal, editor of the Pickled Politics blog, agreed. "The BBC wanted to give religion a shot in the arm and Aaqil will do that. But it's a pretty tough job because there will always be one religious lobby that feels they are being sidelined at the expense of the other."

Religion on television: Aaqil Ahmed's CV

Christianity: A History – An eight-part history of the Christian faith with each episode presented by public personalities such as Cherie Blair, Michael Portillo and Rageh Omar. Critics said relying on celebrity presenters dumbed down Christianity's historical legacy. Ahmed defended it as innovative and relevant to a modern audience.

The Qur'an – A two-hour special by Antony Thomas on the Muslim holy book which received widespread praise. There were some objections from how Shia (the minority Islamic schism group) were portrayed but considering the potential pitfalls most critics warmly received the film.

Saving Africa's Witch Children – A Bafta award-winning Dispatches documentary looking at how evangelical preachers in Nigeria mix black magic with Christianity and condemn some children as witches.

Priest Idol – A three-part series from 2005 where a Yorkshire vicar used modern marketing techniques to try to fill his increasingly empty pews. Part of a series of "reality religion" shows commissioned by Channel 4 which appeals to younger viewers but which critics say trivialises religion.

Inside the Mind of the Suicide Bomber – A series of interviews from 2003 with wannabe Palestinian suicide bombers who had failed to blow themselves up in Israel.