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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 11:55 GMT
US concern over French scarf ban
Views on headscarves from the streets of Lille

The United States has expressed concern over French plans for a ban on overt religious symbols in state schools.

The US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, John Hanford, grouped France with a list of countries accused of abusing religious freedom.

"All persons should be able to practise their religion and their beliefs peacefully without government interference," he said.

Iranian Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi also criticised the plans.

Islamic leaders in France urged young Muslims to stay calm after the French president's support for a law which would ban items such as Islamic headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and Christian crucifixes being worn in state schools.

President Jacques Chirac said this week that secularism was one of France's greatest achievements and played a vital role in ensuring social harmony.

Religious freedom

Mr Hanford, presenting a US report on International Religious Freedom, said allowing people to practice their beliefs was "a fundamental principle of religious freedom".

"Where people are wearing these with no provocation simply as a manifestation of their own heartfelt beliefs, we don't see where this causes divisions among peoples," he said.

We are going to watch this carefully and this is certainly an important concern at this time
John Hanford
French Education Minister Luc Ferry said a bill introducing the ban would be put before the National Assembly in February and should come into effect by September.

As both Mr Chirac's governing conservative party, the UMP, and the opposition Socialists are in favour of a law, it is unlikely to fail.

This year's Nobel peace prize winner, the Iranian-born Shirin Ebadi said the plans would only promote Islamic extremism.

"If there is a law, only fundamentalists will profit from it," she said in Paris.

"The better the girls are educated and the more they go to school, the more emancipated they will be."

In Malaysia about 50 Muslims protested outside the French embassy on Friday. One of the organisers, Salahuddin Ayub, of the Islamic Party (PAS), said: "This is a breach of human rights. There is no justification for the law.

"We think the French government is anti-religion. Its action reflects blatant disrespect for all religions," he told reporters.

In Denmark, a court upheld on Thursday a supermarket's decision to dismiss a young Muslim woman for wearing an Islamic headscarf at work.

It said 25-year-old Najla Ainouz's claim of discrimination could not be substantiated because she had agreed to a specific dress code when she joined the company.

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