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French religious leaders warn against
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
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.
OTHER FAITHS SUPPORT MUSLIMS
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
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
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.
"GROTESQUE" GREEN STAR PROTEST
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
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
"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
Islam debate in France
French President Nicolas
Sarkozy's party, the UMP, has
hosted a controversial debate on
the practice of Islam in secular
The debate provoked protests
from Islamic and other religious
groups, and even from some
members of the governing party
have accused the party of
pandering to a resurgent far
The debate was held a week
before a law banning the Islamic
full-face veil in public comes
With Muslim religious leaders
boycotting the event, only
politicians or representatives
of other faiths took part in the
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
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.
The UMP argued that it would be
irresponsible not to debate the
great changes posed to French
society by its growing numbers
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
discussed on Tuesday included
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
preventing parents from
withdrawing their children from
mandatory subjects including
physical education and biology.
the debate entitled simply
"Secularity" before 200 guests
and scores of journalists, UMP
leader Jean-Francois Cope
defended the idea of holding it
Accusing the opposition
Socialists of being in denial
and the National Front of
demagoguery, he called for "a
third way, that of
"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
Gilles Bernheim, France's chief
rabbi, said the debate was
"importune" but he was taking
"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]
These people are extremists,
they are extremists whether it's
religion (conservatism) or
secularism, never moderate.
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