U.S. Voices Misgivings on Chirac's Headscarves Stand
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The State Department voiced misgivings on Thursday about French President Jacques Chirac's plan to bar the wearing of Islamic headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in state schools.
"President Chirac is concerned to maintain France's principle of secularism and he wants that, as I think he said, not to be negotiable," U.S. ambassador John Hanford told reporters when asked about the issue. "Our hope is religious freedom would be a nonnegotiable as well."
"One Muslim leader said this is a secularism that excludes too much. We are very concerned that that not be the case," the U.S. envoy for international religious freedom added. "So we are going to watch this carefully and (it is) certainly an important concern."
Hanford spoke as he presented the State Department's annual report on religious freedom, which, as usual, criticized allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, adversaries like North Korea and Iran and emerging partners like China for failing to respect such freedoms.
Despite protests from Muslims, Chirac on Wednesday called on the French parliament to pass a law banning people from wearing Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols in state schools before the new school year begins in September. Hanford said, "A fundamental principle of religious freedom that we work for in many countries of the world, including on this very issue of headscarves, is that all persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully without government interference as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others in the society."
"Where people are peacefully practicing their faith, is it really necessary to be outlawing their manifestation of their own faith?" Hanford asked. "That's the sort of basis (upon) which we will be discussing this."
As he presented the State Department's religious freedom report, which covered the year ending June 2003, Hanford painted a relatively grim picture, saying, "Religious freedom all too often remains fragile, neglected and violated."
The report cited many instances of religious persecution around the world and, in its executive summary, found significant improvements only in Kazakhstan and Laos.
The report rapped China, a growing U.S. partner on the diplomatic effort to end North Korea' suspected nuclear arms program, by saying it continued to try to restrict religious practice to state-sanctioned groups while others suffered varying degrees of "interference and harassment."
"Members of some unregistered religious groups were subjected to restrictions, leading in some cases to intimidation, harassment, and detention," the report said.
The report was particularly critical of Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and a major supplier of crude oil, saying bluntly that "freedom of religion does not exist" in the kingdom.
The report also cited Egypt -- another key Middle East ally -- for prosecuting people, including Muslims, for unorthodox beliefs under the charge of "insulting heavenly religions."
Iran, described by President Bush as part of an "axis of evil" along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, was cited for officially sanctioned discrimination against minority Bahais, Jews, Christians and Sunni Muslims.
In communist-led North Korea, which the United States accuses of seeking nuclear weapons, "genuine religious freedom does not exist," the report said, citing reports of executions, torture and imprisonment of religious people in the country.
©Copyright 2003, Reuters All rights reserved.
Following is the URL to the original story. The site may have removed or archived this story. URL: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=4017686