Spanish Catholic leaders defend use of Islamic veil
Spain's Roman Catholic leaders on Friday defended women's right to use an Islamic veil after a suburban Madrid high school banned a teenager from classes who refused to take off the garment, sparking a debate over the issue.
Bishop Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, the spokesman of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, told a news conference that people "have the right to manifest their religion or belief" according to the Spanish constitution as long as they respect "public order".
This principle is also applicable to displaying the crucifix in classrooms, he added.
Late last year Spain took a first step towards banning crucifixes in schools with the approval of a parliamentary initiative calling on the government to implement a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights demanding that this be done.
Earlier this month a high school at Pozuelo de Alarcon banned 16-year-old Najwa Malha, born in Spain to Moroccan parents, from classes for violating internal regulations which bar "the use of hats and any other article of clothing that cover the head".
The move angered associations representing Muslims in Spain which said they would contest the decision before Spain's Constitutional Court. They argue it interferes with the student's right to an education.
Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa de la Vega sought to soften the controversy, telling a news conference following a weekly cabinet meeting that it was a "one-off problem" which posed no "social problem".
Regional authorities have proposed that Malha be transfered to another high school in the area that does not ban the use of the veil.
There is no nationwide policy on the use of the Islamic headscarf in Spain, with each school allowed to decide its own rules.
The issue is a relatively new one for the mainly Roman Catholic country which has seen the number of immigrants living within its borders soar from around half a million in 1996 to 5.6 million last year, out of a total population of 46 million people.
Moroccans make up one of the largest immigrant communities.
In 2007, a nine-year-old Moroccan girl was briefly expelled from school for wearing a traditional Islamic headscarf, or hijab.
© 2010 AFP