PARIS – Plans by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party to hold a debate on the role of Islam in France are drawing condemnations from the country’s religious leaders.
“Let’s take care not to squander this precious gain," leaders of six different religions said Wednesday, March 30 in a statement cited by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The statement, signed by Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim leaders, warned that the Islam debate could be a source of discrimination and confusion.
Secularism is “a pillar of our republican pact, a basis of our democracy, a foundation of our desire to live together.”
The debate was initiated by Sarkozy’s governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party to discuss the role of Islam in France.
The planned debate will tackle a host of issues such as the building of mosques and financing to the Muslim worship places.
It will also examine the contents of the weekly Friday sermons and education of Muslim imams.
But the debate, scheduled for 5 April, has sparked uproar and caused rifts inside the ruling party.
Sarkozy sacked his adviser earlier this month for attacking his planned debate on Islam.
Critics warn that the debate would single out French Muslims, estimated at six million.
The French government held a country-wide debate on national identity in 2009-2010 that preceded the full face veil ban.
Many Muslims criticized the debate, saying it turned into a forum to stigmatize them and let people air biased views about Islam.
In 2004, the French government banned hijab, an obligatory code of dress, in state schools, triggering several European countries to follow suit.
The religious leaders criticized the ruling party for politicizing the issue to win votes from the far-right National Front.
“Debate is always a sign of health and vitality,” they said in the statement.
“But is a political party, even in power, the right authority to carry out the debate alone?”
Sarkozy’s popularity is at record lows 13 months before the first round of the 2012 presidential election.
A recent opinion poll showed far-right leader Marine Le Pen had overtaken Sarkozy, sending shockwaves through the ruling UMP.
Playing on the far right ground, Sarkozy has been accused of causing the far-Right surge by focusing on a string of pet FN issues, from immigration to Islam.
After long debates, his government passed a law banning the full-face Islamic veil from public places, due to come into effect next month.
Sarkozy hailed last week France's "Christian heritage" in a speech in a Catholic pilgrim town.
The religious leaders called for calmness and integration instead of stigmatization and confusion.It was “capital during this pre-election period, to calmly stay the course by avoiding lumping things together and the risks of stigmatization.”
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