The decision by the French government to ban the burka is extremely disturbing as it is a clear attack on religious expression (leading article, 11 April). Although moderate Muslim leaders have co-operated with the French government to reduce any possible confrontation, whether the ban is the most appropriate way of integrating France's Muslim community into France's secular society must be questioned. The ban appeals to the far right and marginalises those who are not politically engaged.
In the past, the French have taken great pride that the government does not involve itself in religious matters. Clearly, this is no longer the case. How long it will be before the state intervenes in other personal matters such as religious expression within one's own personal space?
Founder and Director, Faith Matters
Mr Sarkozy is marginalising Muslims by banning women from wearing the burka . This legislation is a gross violation of a person's fundamental rights, and is a smokescreen for his wider anti-Islamic sentiments.
The ban is really about a wider agenda of appeasing the right. The ban is also intended to curb Muslim immigration.
If I were to give Sarkozy the benefit of the doubt and believe him that the ban was to stop the oppression of women, I'd still think it a bad idea. Instead he should implement policies that stop domestic violence in the home and make it easier for women to go to the authorities with complaints. The state should be protecting vulnerable women. But this ban does nothing to do that. Oppressed women who were forced to wear the niqab will still be oppressed at home. And women who actually want to wear it have been denied a fundamental right.
Why not legislate to forbid anyone from covering their face in public? This would avoid accusations of racism and sexism and solve the new problem of anonymous marchers who then become violent.
If we take Robert Gardiner's advice to punish the pastor who burned a copy of the Koran (Letters, 6 April), we will have demonstrated that terrorists who kill innocent people are "right". The true evil cannot be the harmless burning of a book but the murderous response?
Are the beheadings of the nearest non-Muslims to be the sanctioned response whenever anyone gives offence to Islam? If America does not condemn the murderers without reservation (and without transferring any blame at all to the pastor), it has lost all moral authority. It will have tacitly introduced a law that it is illegal to criticise Islam.
If we allow murderers to dictate what we can or cannot do then we have lost free speech: precisely the aim of the Islamists.
Newcastle upon tyne
Folly of nuclear reprocessing
I congratulate Steve Connor for his excellent article showing the folly of the Government's £6bn plan to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium at Sellafield to customers who clearly don't exist (11 April). The development of the world's largest stockpile of plutonium was a huge mistake in the first place, while the current Sellafield Mox plant is one of the costliest mistakes in UK nuclear history.
Now we seek to compound all of this by building a new plant when there is no clear idea if there will be any customers for it. And yet the Government keeps ploughing on as if, post-Fukushima, nothing has actually happened. Japan will take decades to recover from this incident, so how on earth would they be in a position to be a continuing customer for reprocessed plutonium-based Mox fuel? If not Japan, who else would take it?
We believe that plutonium should be immobilised and stored safely. It was a mistake to create it in the first place. Let's not compound it by seeking to waste billions more reprocessing it for non-existent customers.
Bailie George Regan
Chair of UK and Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities
The UK public has been misled on several cardinal points in respect of our need for nuclear energy, and especially on the effects of radiation.
The 2002 Cabinet Energy Review recommended there was no need for nuclear and said we could keep the lights on without it at far less cost to the economy and the environment. The US Department of Energy has testified that "there is no level of radiation that is so low that it is without health risks".
Plutonium is estimated to take 12,000 generations before it is safe. How can we leave such a legacy to those who come after us, never mind afford the hugely costly failures to process Mox fuel at Sellafield?
Could the Government consider thorium reactors as enlightened China and India are doing? It might give us a little peace of mind, plus increased confidence that Chris Huhne can find a way out of "one of the biggest failures in British industrial history". Norway has lots of thorium and it's a whole lot safer than enriched uranium or plutonium.
Song of the nightingale
Yes, I have heard the song of the nightingale. And yes, I totally agree with Michael McCarthy (Nature Studies, 8 April) that nothing compares, especially when heard at the dead of night and during the very early hours of the morning.
I am lucky and don't have to follow Michael's advice and actually venture into the middle of the woods to hear this haunting melody. I live on the very edge of our local woods in our quiet little countryside town in Herefordshire. And I am an insomniac. So, while lying fully awake in bed (or silently typing on my computer), the accompaniment of the nightingale at this time of year is a source of rare beauty and a real privilege.
(But that monotone blackbird is driving me mad during the daytime!)
Bullying in the workplace
Julie Burchill writes very perceptively about workplace bullying (7 April). My son is in his late twenties and has been unemployed for most of the time since leaving school, mostly on incapacity benefit due to anxiety and depression. Recently his state of mind has been improving, but earlier experiences in the workplace have been a major factor preventing him from applying for jobs. He dreads a repetition of them.
In almost all of the short-term unskilled jobs he took there was some idiot in charge who thought that the way to treat the new lad was to tell him how stupid he was and make him feel as small as possible.
The anxiety and resentment this caused, against a background of feelings of inadequacy due to educational difficulties and combined with his nervous disposition, have built up a barrier against the prospect of applying for a job and working that is still proving very hard to break down.
This culture of machismo and bullying in the workplace is an old problem which may have got worse as a result of the decline in union power, as Julie Burchill suggests. But either way, isn't it time we all grew out of it?
Name and address supplied
Thanks to Julie Burchill for speaking out on the realities of the workplace for many in employment – in particular young workers – and for the need for trade unions to stand up to the abuse of managerial power. Union representatives will be vital in the current period of job cuts and reorganisations.
It is appropriate in this context to applaud the resilience of the BA cabin-crew workers in refusing to capitulate to management bullying when they voted by an overwhelming majority (81 per cent) in a ballot with a large turn-out (79 per cent) to continue to defend their representatives who have been hounded out of their jobs or victimised by BA for standing up for the rights of fellow workers.
Dr Sian Moore
Working Lives Research Institute, London Metropolitan University
'Bargain broken' on pensions
Jackie Fee is unhappy about having to work for an extra 2.5 years before retiring and believes the Government has reneged on a "contract" with her (letter, 6 April). I sympathise. But she is part of a generation that has done particularly well (even if she herself has not): free university education; the NHS and huge advances in medical technology; the wonder of inflation reducing mortgage debt; the option not to need two incomes to buy a reasonable family house; final salary pension schemes. Need I go on?
My greater sympathies lie with those who have to pay for all these advances, those currently at school and in the early years of their employment. The Government has a duty to future generations, though the electoral cycle means that few politicians are brave enough to consider this. Governments over the past 30 years have consistently raised the burden on future generations. Ms Fee may feel let down by the Government but the real victims are those on the wrong end of this inter-generational shift in wealth.
Unfortunately, Jackie Fee has misunderstood the terms of the contract she had with the Government regarding her pension.
The offer to have a pension paid from the age of 60 was made on the basis that she agreed not to live beyond 75. As she is now statistically less likely to keep her side of the bargain, the Government has shifted the start point.
She has also misunderstood the nature of the contract. The money she has paid for 30 years has long since been spent on pensions for other people. She is relying on the future goodwill of the working population to meet the cost of her pension.
The real shock is that the Government has managed to persuade us this is a sustainable model.
Legend of the Holy Towel
Rob Sharp's article on the Mandylion of Edessa ("Holy towel of Jesus", 6 April) tells a history of the image at odds with a more accepted tradition surrounding the reliquary as recorded in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History.
The legend, of some significance to the communion of Eastern churches, recounts an apocryphal epistle of Jesus Christ to King Abgar of Edessa, an Armenian kingdom in southern Anatolia. Having heard of Christ's curing the afflicted, the leprosy-ridden Abgar – in return for being cured – offers Jesus sanctuary and the right to preach freely in Edessa. The offer is conveyed by Ananias, Abgar's messenger, and not the artist the article suggests.
Declining the offer, Jesus instead sends a cloth bearing his image back to the king who, placing the shroud to his face, is promptly healed. Abgar later converts and earns the title of the first Christian king. The Armenian Church sees this as its symbolic birth date and the origin of its apostolic tradition (in the same epistle Jesus promises to send a disciple to convert the Armenians of Edessa after Ascension).
For Armenians the true reliquary, a shroud known as the "Dastarak" was kept in the ancient see of Hromkla on the outskirts of modern-day Sanliurfa (Edessa) and lost at the end of the First World War.
Test that could save your life
Last September I received my second bowel-cancer screening kit. I was 62 in August and for my age was feeling very fit and healthy, and taking no prescribed medication.
I had a recall from the screening programme and had a colonoscopy in October, where they found that I had bowel cancer, although I had had no symptoms of any kind.
I had an operation to remove this in November, by keyhole surgery, and was discharged after two days, recovering very quickly and feeling completely back to normal by Christmas.
I have met several other people, who like me had had no symptoms at all, who discovered they had a problem at such an early stage that it has also saved their lives. The kit has been made as simple as possible; Howard Jacobson (9 April) made it sound far more complicated than it need be.
I would urge everyone who receives their kit to spend the few minutes it takes – it may save their lives.
John Walsh's entertaining essay (5 April) gets his Boots on the wrong feet in his summary of the conclusion to Evelyn Waugh's masterly Scoop. It was not John Boot, man-about-town novelist, who took credit for William Boot's sensational reporting of the civil war in Ishmaelia. He had gone to Antarctica to record the first all-woman expedition to the icy wastes. It is William's flashy Uncle Theodore who is hailed at the banquet arranged by Lord Copper, William having rejected all overtures to accept the honour.
Perspectives on voting reform
Power for minor players under AV
When a parliament is elected, there are just two outcomes which matter, irrespective of the voting system used.
The first is when the single biggest party has a safe overall majority. In this case, it is irrelevant whether the Government won the election with an overall margin of 70, 170 or 270 MPs. With any of these totals it will be able to get all its manifesto commitments through the Commons. And, if it breaks those promises, it can be held to account by the voters at the next election. First-past-the-post maximises the chances of a safe overall majority.
The second important outcome is when no single party has a safe overall majority, or indeed any overall majority at all – as was the case in 2010. To go into government, a party must do deals, or form coalitions, or otherwise risk having its proposals defeated. This is more likely to result from AV, which would boost the prospects of some third parties, like the Liberal Democrats, of holding the balance of power and naming their price for putting either Labour or the Conservatives or into power.
People who view coalitions which depend on small third parties as more democratic, more accountable and more likely to keep pre-election promises than single-party governments, should vote for AV in May's referendum. The rest of us should firmly vote "No" to any such change.
Dr Julian Lewis MP (C, New Forest East)
House of Commons
A vote for reform is a vote for diversity
Your summary of the New Economics Foundation report on AV ("Vote reform would create more marginal seats, says study", 5 April) seems to conclude that very little change in outcome would result from its adoption.
But the report seriously overlooks a key impact of AV: dramatically reducing tactical voting. I assume that the NEF has based its projections of marginal seats on existing voting patterns. Under AV it is almost certain that voters will increasingly back their real choices rather than choose a "least worst winnable option" which they do at the moment.
I predict that the much publicised figures regarding voting trends in the past 50-plus years (1950s: 90 per cent Lab/Con; 2010: 65 per cent Lab/Con) will evolve further, allowing a range of smaller parties to be the recipients of electors' first choices.
A diverse democracy is a healthy democracy – surely for this reason alone it is worth saying "Yes" to AV.
Councillor Bob Gledhill (Green)
Trembling lips beat rational thought
One must be inspired and amused by your readers' letters concerning the AV controversy (11 April). Inspired by the deep knowledge and cerebral argument. Amused by the futility.
In a nation of voters who have been fed short, snappy soundbites, knowledge and cerebral argument have no place. Here in Sheffield I listened to a discussion involving graduates and members of the professional classes and the conclusion reached was that one's vote should be determined by whoever was most trustworthy, Clegg or Blunkett (both Sheffield MPs).
Clearly the attempt to introduce AV will fail. No AV supporter can compete with big Dave's carefully cultivated synthetic upper lip tremble conveying so dramatically his deep and trustworthy concern for all.