France's Islam debate attacked

Religious leaders in France's are protesting at plans for a political debate next week on Islam's role in the country.









They join a growing chorus of voices who fear it could stigmatise Muslims and worsen social tensions.



The top representatives of France's Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists published a joint statement today saying the debate could add "to the confusion in the troubled period we are traversing."



Muslim leaders in France have said the debate will further stigmatise western Europe's largest Islamic population, estimated to number at least five million people.



The April 5 debate has divided President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, with some seeing it as pandering to the resurgent far right National Front party. The National Front made electoral gains in local elections on Sunday, while the UMP fared poorly.



The debate's backers say it is aimed at discussing France's secular traditions, and how to accommodate Islamic customs. Amid the criticism, the UMP's plans have been repeatedly scaled back and the idea now is for a limited roundtable instead of a full-day debate.



"Do we need, in the current context, a debate on secularism?" the religious leaders' statement asks. "Is a political party, even if it is in the majority, the right entity to lead such a debate alone?"



France has formally separated church and state since a 1905 law that the religious leaders praise as a "precious achievement" and "one of the pillars" of national accord.



The main champion of the debate, UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope, issued an open letter to Muslims this week saying he wants a new "Code of Secularity" that would spell out rules about how to keep public schools, streets and businesses secular.



"The practice of Islam in a secular nation is not the burka not prayers in the street, nor the rejection of diversity," he wrote.



The debate would come the week before a law goes into effect banning face-covering Islamic veils such as the burka or niqab in public.

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