12 January 2004
BRUSSELS – Muslim groups and leading politicians have reacted angrily to a call from Belgium’s deputy Prime Minister for a ban on Islamic veils and other overtly religious symbols similar to the one being planned in neighbouring France.
Liberal Democrat deputy PM, Patrick Dewael, made the controversial comments in a lengthy document published at the weekend.
Mr Dewael argued that civil servants including schoolteachers, judges and police officers should be banned from wearing any overtly religious symbols while at work. The same rule should apply to pupils in Belgium’s state schools he added.
The deputy PM argued that in such cases, wearing Islamic veils and other religious could “threaten principles such as the separation between the church and the state.”
But his comments were quickly condemned both by Islamic organisations and by a leading member of his own coalition government.
Belgium’s Socialist Social Integration Minister, Maria Arena, accused Mr Dewael of “electioneering” ahead of this year’s regional and European polls.
“When high ranking ministers make such radical and aggressive comments without taking the time to consult widely, the result is very dangerous for social cohesion, ” she fumed.
Meanwhile around 15 Islamic rights groups have also criticised Mr Dewael’s calls. In a joint communiqué the groups argued that for many Muslim women wearing a veil was a “divine obligation.” It was untrue that many women were forced to wear veils by their husbands, the group added, directly countering another of the key points of Mr Dewael’s statement.
The groups that signed the declaration included the Unions of Mosques from Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, Borinage and east and west Flanders, the Belgian Immams’ League and the Belgian Association of Parents of Muslim Children.
In France, a fierce debate over religious symbols in schools has been raging since the end of last year when a high-ranking parliamentary committee urged the government to ban pupils from wearing overt signs of faith like Islamic headscarves or Jewish Kippas.
French President Jacques Chirac supported the findings and his government is currently trying to steer a planned new law on the issue through Parliament. If approved, the text should become law in time for the beginning of the new school year in September 2004.
[Copyright Expatica News 2003]
Subject: Belgian news