RIYADH Two Saudi clerics have declared Muslim women are exempt from wearing full veils in France, which is planning to ban them, but added they should avoid visiting it as tourists.
The comments, by Islamic jurisprudence scholar Mohamed al-Nujaimi and author and cleric Ayed al-Garni, come two weeks after French lawmakers passed a bill under which women could be fined for appearing in public with the all-covering burqa or the niqab, which leaves the eyes exposed.
"For a woman who permanently resides in France or is a French citizen, if there is harm in wearing the veil ... it is permitted that she shows her face when need and necessity demand it," Nujaimi said in remarks published by al-Watan newspaper.
Muslim scholars are divided over the veil, disagreeing on whether and how much of a woman's face should be covered. Saudi clerics widely recommend it.
The kingdom is ruled by the House of Saud in alliance with clerics from the austere Wahhabi school of Islam who oversee mosques, the judiciary and education and run their own coercive apparatus, the morals police.
Nujaimi and Garni are not members of the kingdom's official Senior Scholars Authority, which has not commented on the French parliament's decision.
Tourism to Western countries like France, while not forbidden, should be avoided in favor of Muslim countries where veils are allowed, the clerics said.
Every summer, tens of thousands of Saudi holidaymakers leave the kingdom and its searing heat to spend their vacation abroad, with many traveling to European countries.
"Tourism in a non-Muslim country is not indispensable, it is not needed, it is however allowed ... but we have a lot of touristic regions in our country and there are a lot of Muslim countries that do not ban the niqab," Nujaimi said.
Saudi Arabia is a major U.S. ally that has close trade and political ties with France, home to Western Europe's largest Muslim minority of almost 5 million. It is thought that only about 2,000 women wear the full-length veil in France.
The new law, which still has to be vetted by France's highest constitutional authority and approved by the Senate, could make France the second European country after Belgium to criminalize the veil.
Saudi King Abdullah postponed a visit to Paris that was scheduled to start one day before the French parliament voted on the ban, although Saudi officials did not link this postponement to the vote.
Comments by the two clerics come as the Louvre museum in Paris -- with the support of the Saudi government -- is displaying hundreds of artifacts from Saudi Arabia that have never been exhibited before, either at home nor abroad.
Among them are many pre-Islamic items. Exhibiting them in the kingdom would have triggered uproar from many clerics in the kingdom, who would see in it a revival of idolatry.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)