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US Expresses Concern over France's Proposed Ban on Islamic Headscarves, Other Religious Symbols - 2003-12-18

The United States expressed concern Thursday over a proposal by French President Jacques Chirac for a ban on Islamic headscarves and other conspicuous religious symbols in schools and government buildings.

Mr. Chirac said Wednesday he was proposing the new law that would ban such things as Muslim headscarves, Jewish skull caps, and large crucifixes to help maintain France's secular traditions and reduce religious divisions.

But the State Department's special ambassador for International Religious Freedom John Hanford says the Bush administration would object to any law that interferes with genuine and peaceful expression of religious faith.

At a press event releasing the annual U.S. report on religious freedom worldwide, Mr. Hanford said a fundamental principle of that freedom is that people should be able to practice their beliefs without government interference provided they do so without provoking or intimidation others.

"This fits with an approach we've taken with a number of countries that restrict headscarves where we have felt that where people are wearing these with no provocation, simply as a manifestation of their own heart-felt beliefs, that we don't see where this causes division among peoples," he said.

Mr. Hanford noted the United States had previously spoken out in support of a female Turkish lawmaker who had come under criticism for wearing a headscarf in parliament.

He said he was unaware of any formal complaint to France about the pending law but said it was an issue was an "important concern" that the United States would watch closely.

The new religious freedom report focused mainly on abuses of freedom of religion by authoritarian governments in East and Central Asia and the Middle East. But it did express concern about what it said was a "disturbing" increase in anti-Semitism in several European countries.

It said some West European democracies have policies that have stigmatized minority religions by identifying them as "sects" or "cults," citing in particular Germany's treatment of practitioners of Scientology.