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the Message Continues ... 9/114



Newsletter for February 2011


Article 1 - Article 2 - Article 3 - Article 4 - Article 5 - Article 6 - Article 7 - Article 8 - Article 9 - Article 10 - Article 11 - Article 12



French religious leaders warn against Islam debate
By Tom Heneghan
The leaders of France's six main religions warned the government on Wednesday against a planned debate on Islam they say could stigmatise Muslims and fuel prejudice as the country nears national elections next year.
Weighing in on an issue that is tearing apart President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, the Conference of French Religious Leaders said the discussion about respect for France's secular system could only spread confusion at a turbulent time.
The UMP plans to hold a public forum on secularism next week that critics decry as veiled Muslim-bashing to win back voters who defected to the far-right National Front at local polls last week and could thwart Sarkozy's reelection hopes in 2012.
Sarkozy's allies are split over the populist strategy, with moderates such as Prime Minister Francois Fillon publicly opposing what they see as the UMP's drift to the far right.
Stressing that faith should foster social harmony, the religous leaders said the debate could "cloud this perspective and incite confusion that can only be prejudicial."
"Is a political party, even if it is in the majority, the right forum to lead this by itself?" they asked in a rare joint statement.
The statement was signed by the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox Christian and Buddhist faiths. The leaders formed the group last year to coordinate their approach to religious issues in public debate.
UMP party leader Jean-Francois Cope rejected accusations of fear-mongering, saying the debate about how the secular system is respected in practice would ensure equality for all faiths.
But many critics say the issues the UMP stresses -- veiled women, halal food in school cafeterias, Muslims praying in the street outside overcrowded mosques -- all target Islam.
The faith leaders said France has held many long and serious debates about its secular system, introduced in 1905 to separate the church and state, and questioned the need for another one.
"We are working for a common sense secularism," they said. "Secularism cannot be separated from our fundamental values, especially the dignity and respect for the human person."
Individual religious leaders have supported Muslims, who at about five million constitute France's second-largest religion after Catholicism. "It's often difficult to be a Muslim in France," Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim said last week.
"This difficulty is worse today in this unhealthy climate, aggravated by talk that divides rather than unites," the Jewish leader told the daily Le Monde.
French Protestant Federation head Pastor Claude Baty has joined Muslim leaders in announcing he would boycott the round-table discussions the UMP has scheduled for April 5.
The planned debate at a Paris hotel next Tuesday is supposed to draw up a list of proposals that could be applied quickly to counter what the UMP sees as violations of the secular system.
France also plans to implement a ban on full face veils in public starting on April 11, another policy concerning Islam that has been overshadowed by the uproar over the UMP debate.
A lay Muslim politician caused a stir this week by suggesting Muslims wear a five-pointed green star to protest against what he called persecution recalling that of wartime Jews forced by the Nazis to wear a yellow Star of David.
Abderrahmane Dahmane, who was fired as Sarkozy's advisor for diversity issues this month after criticising the UMP debate, also criticised Cope for suggesting Muslims should no longer pray in Arabic -- the language of the Koran -- in their mosques.
"This fascist climate evokes the sombre history of the Occupation in France, which sent thousands of Jews by train to the death camps," he said in a statement on Tuesday.
Richard Prasquier, head of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF, called the green star idea "totally grotesque."

Islam debate in France sparks controversy
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's party, the UMP, has hosted a controversial debate on the practice of Islam in secular France.
The debate provoked protests from Islamic and other religious groups, and even from some members of the governing party itself.
Critics have accused the party of pandering to a resurgent far right.
The debate was held a week before a law banning the Islamic full-face veil in public comes into force.
With Muslim religious leaders boycotting the event, only politicians or representatives of other faiths took part in the three-hour, round-table discussion at a Paris hotel.
The BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris says the political atmosphere in France in recent days has been poisonous, with accusations flying between left and right.
According to government estimates, France has as many as six million Muslims, or just under 10% of the population, making it the biggest Muslim minority in western Europe.
French people 'challenged'
The UMP argued that it would be irresponsible not to debate the great changes posed to French society by its growing numbers of Muslims.
It outlined 26 ideas aimed at underpinning the country's secular character, which was enshrined in a law of 1905.
The law poses modern-day quandaries about issues such as halal food being served in schools and Muslims praying in the street when mosques are too crowded.

Proposals discussed on Tuesday included

banning the wearing of religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves or prominent Christian crosses by day care personnel

preventing Muslim mothers from wearing headscarves when accompanying children on school field trips

preventing parents from withdrawing their children from mandatory subjects including physical education and biology.

Launching the debate entitled simply "Secularity" before 200 guests and scores of journalists, UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope defended the idea of holding it at all.

Accusing the opposition Socialists of being in denial and the National Front of demagoguery, he called for "a third way, that of responsibility".
"Many French people have the feeling that the republican pact to which they are attached is being challenged by globalization and the failures of integration," he said.

However, one of Mr Cope's most senior UMP colleagues, Prime Minister Francois Fillon, declined to take part in the debate, warning that it risked "stigmatizing Muslims".
Gilles Bernheim, France's chief rabbi, said the debate was "importune" but he was taking part nonetheless.
"We did not ask for this debate but there was no question for us of boycotting it and stigmatizing a political party, even if it is a ruling party," he told reporters after arriving at the hotel.
Salim Himidi, a former foreign minister of the largely Muslim Comoros Islands, said Islam's relations with the secular state was "an important subject" that had to be discussed.
"I think France has a mission that goes beyond its geographical limits," he added.
Condemning the debate, Hassan Ben M'Barek of the pressure group Banlieues Respect, said it was aimed only at "keeping the UMP in the media in the year before the [next presidential] election".

These people are extremists, they are extremists whether it's religion (conservatism) or secularism, never moderate.









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