Christians in France Oppose Law That Would Ban Muslim Veil in Schools

But Government Panel Proceeds to Recommend Prohibiting Religious Symbols

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PARIS, DEC. 12, 2003 ( Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox representatives sent a letter to French President Jacques Chirac expressing their opposition to a law that would prohibit the use of the Muslim veil and other religious signs in schools.

The letter criticizes the «combative laicism» that often characterizes French society and calls for «a laicism that is not based on ignorance and suspicion but on dialogue and debate.»

The joint statement of the three Christian confessions was issued earlier this week on the eve of the completion of a report, by a commission on laicism appointed by Chirac, following months of public hearings and interviews.

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

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

The letter from the religious leaders was signed by the three co-presidents of the Council of Christian Churches of France: Jean Arnold de Clermont, president of the Protestant Federation of France; Monsignor Emmanuel, president of the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops of France, and Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux, president of the French Catholic bishops’ conference.

«Laicism’s mission,» the letter explains, «is not to create spaces devoid of religion, but to offer space in which all — believers and nonbelievers — can debate, among other things, on what is tolerable or intolerable, on differences that must be respected and excesses that must be curbed, all to be done in an environment of mutual listening, without silencing the convictions and motivations of one another, without confrontation or propaganda.»

«Should the school not be one of those places where this debate is learned?» the signatories wonder.

The religious leaders believe, however, that «beyond the defense of laicism, beyond the religious claim, the real debate at present is about the success of integration.»

«We see that the environments in which Muslim claims find their most ample echo are often those of ‘ghettos,» which we have allowed to be created on the outskirts of our large cities,» they add.

Muslim and Jewish representatives in France also voiced their opposition to the law prohibiting religious signs in schools.

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