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France to move swiftly on Muslim headscarf ban
( 2003-12-19 10:54) (Agencies)

French Education Minister Luc Ferry said on Thursday he planned to submit to parliament early next year a draft law banning religious symbols such as Islamic headscarves in state schools.

The measure, announced by President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday, has drawn protests from Muslims in France and across the world. But French religious leaders who had voiced concern before the speech were more positive after hearing it.

"There will be a law specifically concerning schools, because this is the central issue," Ferry told French radio RTL. "It will probably be submitted in February, given that it has to be applicable by the start of the new school year in 2004."

Ferry said he planned to keep the draft law short and simple, and although he had yet to settle the exact wording he was leaning toward prohibiting what would be described as "ostentatious" symbols of faith.

The minister, who earlier expressed concern over suggestions there might be a ban on all religious symbols in schools, said he was satisfied Chirac had restricted it to overt ones like headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

Devout Muslims believe women should cover their hair from the views of men not related to them. Devout Jewish men wear skullcaps as a sign of constant reverence to God.

Pupils will still be allowed to wear discreet symbols of faith such as small Islamic pendants, the star of David or crosses.

The proposal was designed to bolster France's 1905 law separating church and state, brought in after a bitter struggle against the once-powerful Catholic Church. The move followed months of debate on the role of religion in French society, which highlighted the difficulties of Muslim integration.


The State Department voiced misgivings about the measure on Thursday.

"All persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully without government interference as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others," said John Hanford, ambassador for international religious freedom.

In Britain, junior foreign minister Mike O'Brien told a group of Muslim organizations the British were comfortable with people expressing their religion by wearing headscarves, crucifixes or skullcaps.

Ali Shakourirad, a member of the Iranian parliament, said the headscarf ban would limit personal freedom and was a major failure. But French religious leaders welcomed Chirac's decision to temper a measure they had feared could stifle religious expression.

Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, initially opposed the ban, which he said would single out French Muslims of North African origin. After hearing Chirac speak, he urged young Muslims not to overreact.

Fadela Amara, head of a French organization campaigning for the rights of Muslim girls, said the move would help counter the pressure of radical Islamists.

"I want everybody to hear the message, especially those who belong to fundamentalist groups," she said.

Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk and Father Stanislas Lalanne, head of the French Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference, said they were satisfied overall with Chirac's speech, although Lalanne said it still left room for different interpretations.

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