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French report backs ban on veil, skullcap, cross
( 2003-12-12 13:47) (Agencies)

France should ban Muslim veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses from its public schools, while creating new holidays to respect holy days of minority religions, an official report said Thursday.

The long-awaited report on church-state relations, the center-piece of a national debate over integrating Muslims into French society, advised Paris to stand firm against militant Islamists trying to undermine official secularism.

It also urged traditionally Catholic France to respect "all spiritual options" in its ever more diverse society and stressed that sexual equality was a key criterion in deciding whether certain practices were considered acceptable.

French President Jacques Chirac said he would announce next Wednesday whether he would seek a law banning the veil, now a major issue in France amid concern of failed Muslim integration and growing Islamist influence. He has hinted he backs a ban.

France, once so Catholic it was called "the eldest daughter of the Church," is now eight percent Muslim and Islam is its second-largest religion. But eight of its 13 national holidays are based on Christian feasts such as Christmas and Easter.

Its five-million-strong Muslim community and its 600,000 Jews are both the largest minorities of their kind in Europe.

"Secularism essentially means respect for differences," Bernard Stasi, chairman of the special commission that drew up the 67-page report, told a news conference.

But he added: "We must be lucid -- there are in France some behaviors which cannot be tolerated. There are without any doubt forces in France which are seeking to destabilize the republic and it is time for the republic to react."

Christian, Muslim and some Jewish religious leaders have in recent days urged Chirac not to seek an outright ban.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith, which say the veil is a religious obligation for women, repeated its opposition to a ban after the report was issued but pledged to back "anything that can strengthen the spirit of concord and tolerance."


The commission proposed barring "conspicuous signs of political or religious affiliation" but said discreet medals -- such as a small cross or Star of David -- were acceptable.

It also suggested adding Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and the Eid al-Fitr festival at the end of Islam's Ramadan fasting month to a list of official school holidays.

Companies were advised to consider ways of allowing employees to take off the religious holiday of their choice.

Apart from the veil, the commission also investigated issues such as Muslim women refusing treatment by male doctors, pupils challenging teachers about the Holocaust and a "new anti-Semitism" among disaffected Muslim youths.

"This anti-Semitism is real in our country," commission secretary Remy Schwartz said. "We found children have to leave public schools in some areas because they are not physically secure... This has profoundly shocked the commission."

The commission was also shocked by cases of discrimination against women and said sexual equality was one of the guiding principles it used for reaching its conclusions.

Schwartz said Muslim girls said they were pressured into wearing veils by family and "outside groups" -- a reference to activists officials say are promoting strict religious practices among French Muslims, who are of mostly North African origin.

"Many asked for protection from the state, that the state forbids the wearing of religious symbols in school to guarantee their protection and their individual freedom," he said.

Kamal Kabtane, head of the Grand Mosque of Lyon, said Muslims would respect an anti-veil law, but added: "This decision will resolve nothing at all. It will only add to the confusion."

Former Socialist Education Minister Jack Lang criticized the commission's proposals for not banning all religious symbols.

Jacques Barrot, parliamentary leader of Chirac's UMP party, repeated his reservations about opting for a ban, while the Communist Party criticized the ban and called for a broad public debate about the integration of immigrant communities.

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