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PARIS – Amid a heated debate about the Muslim veil, the French Catholic church warned Monday, February 1, against banning face-veils, calling on the European country to respect rights of its Muslim minority.

“The result could be the opposite of what is desired and lead to a reaction that increases the number of women wearing this garment,” said Bishop Michel Santier, the top French Catholic official for interreligious dialogue in a statement cited by Reuters.

He said that very few women wore face-veil in the country.

A French parliamentary panel recommended last week slapping a partial ban on face-veils in hospitals, schools, public transport and government offices.

Santier regretted that the panel did not invite Christian or Jewish leaders to give their views during the six-month-long hearings, which ended in December.

French Jewish leaders have already expressed concern about a veil ban.

France has seen a heated debate on the face-veil since President Nicolas Sarkozy described it last June as being “unwelcome” in France.

On Sunday, Claude Gueant, a top aide to Sarkozy, said he doubted a total ban would be legally possible.

According to the Interior Ministry, only about 1,900 Muslim women are estimated to being using face-veils.

The European country is home to nearly seven million Muslims, the biggest Muslim minority in Europe.

A burqa is the all-enveloping cloak, often blue, with a woven grill over the eyes, that many Afghan women wear, and it is almost never seen in France.

The niqab, a garment that is often black, covers the face but leaves the eyes uncovered.

Respect Muslim Rights

The top Catholic Bishop urged the government to respect the rights of the Muslim minority.

“If we want Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries to enjoy all their rights, we should in our country respect the rights of all believers to practice their faith,” he said.

“The French, including the Catholics among them, should not let themselves be gripped by fear or a ‘clash of civilisations’ theory.”

Santier also called on the government to distinct between the majority of peaceful Muslims and a minority of radicals.

“A dialogue in truth among believers will help us go beyond mutual mistrust,” he said.

“The path will be long and hard.”

France banned hijab in schools and public places in 2004, with many European countries following suit.

While hijab is an obligatory code of dress for Muslim women, the majority of Muslim scholars agree that a woman is not obliged to wear the face veil.

Scholars believe it is up to women to decide whether to take on the veil or burka.

Prominent Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan has said that the French debate on the wearing of burka reflects growing self-doubts inside the society.

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