BRUSSELS The Belgian lower house of parliament on Thursday approved a bill to ban wearing the full Islamic face veil in public, a move that could make Belgium the first European country to make the practice a criminal offence.
The draft law, cast as a security measure by proponents, was overwhelmingly backed by 136 lawmakers. Just two abstained.
The bill, which would ban all clothing that covers or partially covers the face, could become law in the coming months as the upper house, or Senate, is not expected to block it.
However, the collapse of Belgium's coalition government last week and the prospect of an imminent election could cause a delay because parliament would have to be dissolved.
France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, is also looking toward a ban on wearing veils in public, with the government set to examine a draft bill in May. It could also become law within a few months.
Belgium's French-speaking liberals, who proposed the veil law, argued that an inability to identify people who have hidden their faces presents a security risk and that the veil was a "walking prison" for women.
Human rights group Amnesty International condemned the vote, saying in a statement that it violated rights to freedom of expression and religion and set a dangerous precedent.
Wearing the facial veil, known as the niqab, and the body-length outer garment, or burqa, widely worn in Afghanistan, could lead to fines of 15-25 euros (about $20 to $33) and imprisonment for up to seven days.
CONCERN ABOUT ISLAMIC MILITANCY
Politicians across Europe have sought to ban veils or headscarves to assuage public concern about a perceived growth of Islamic militancy.
The bill's chief promoter, Daniel Bacquelaine, said local mayors could suspend the ban during festivities such as Carnival when people traditionally wear costumes, including masks.
The law could also be used against potentially violent demonstrators who covered their faces.
Amnesty International urged Belgium's Senate to seek the view of its Council of State on the legality of the measure.
Isabelle Praille, vice president of the Executive of Belgian Muslims, said the ban risked further stigmatizing the Muslim community.
Caroline Sagesser, religious expert at the Universite Libre of Brussels, said existing police regulations forbidding people from wearing masks on the street were quite sufficient to have the same effect.
"It's a bit like taking a hammer to kill a fly. Especially since in Belgium there are very, very few women wearing a full veil on public roads. It is a non-problem," she told Reuters Television.
Bacquelaine estimated that a few hundred women in Belgium wore facial veils and said it was a rising trend.
"We of course support freedom of religion and freedom to practice," he said during parliamentary debate on Thursday afternoon.
"But I think that the burqa is not a religious sign, it's a political sign first and foremost. It is the affirmation of a number of values that are contrary to fundamental values and universal values," he said.
(Additional reporting by Yvonne Bell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)