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Council of Europe opposes bans on Muslim face veils

STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The Council of Europe human rights watchdog said on Wednesday it opposed an all-out ban on full face veils, under consideration by some European states, but also urged Muslims to reject customs that deny women equal rights.

A protestors attends a demonstration against the ban on Muslim women wearing the burqa in public in The Hague, November 30, 2006. REUTERS/Toussaint Kluiters

The Council’s Parliamentary Assembly unanimously passed a resolution saying all-out bans on full veils in public would deny a basic right to women who wanted to cover their faces.

It qualified that right by saying veils, also known as burqas and niqabs, could be banned when public security or professional obligations required women to show their faces.

France, Belgium and Spain are considering a ban on full face veils in public and may outlaw them later this year. The Council’s resolution has no legal weight against national laws.

Very few women among Europe’s estimated 15 million Muslims wear them, but some politicians have made them into a symbol for all problems in assimilating some Muslims into European society.

The Assembly resolution said “a great majority of European Muslims share the principles at the basis of our societies” and deplored discrimination against them, including Switzerland’s ban on minarets voted in a referendum last November.

At the same time, it called on Muslims in Europe “to abandon any traditional interpretations of Islam which deny gender equality and limit women’s rights ... Women are equal to men in all respects and must be treated accordingly.”

The veiling tradition “could be a threat to women’s dignity and freedom” and “no woman should be compelled to wear religious apparel by her community or family,” it said.

The resolution drew a distinction between the religion of Islam and the Muslim political movement known as Islamism that does not accept the separation of church and state that it stressed was fundamental to European democracies.

It was also critical of the foreign backing that many Muslim groups in Europe receive from the Muslim world.

“The Assembly notes with concern that some Islamic organisations active in member states have been initiated by governments abroad and receive financial support and political guidance from those governments,” it said.

“The objectives of such organisations are hence not religious. National political expansion into other states under the disguise of Islam should be brought to light.”

The resolution said many Muslims in Europe “lack adequate knowledge of Islam, let along other religions, which can make them vulnerable to ‘Islamism’ as a religiously disguised form of political extremism.”

European schools should combat this ignorance by teaching all pupils about Islam, Judaism and Christianity, it said.

Editing by Philippa Fletcher