Belgian Christians divided over banning of Muslim burqa

Warsaw, Poland, July 25 (ENInews)--Christian organizations in Belgium have
had mixed reactions to a criminal code amendment making the country
Europe's second to ban the Islamic veil, or burqa.

"We're against this ruling, since it violates basic human rights," said
Kristine Jansone, general secretary of the Brussels-based Ecumenical Youth
Council in Europe. "Although I can't speak on behalf of all our
member-groups, I think it's the general consensus we should oppose a measure which
clearly impede the free practice of religion."

The new Code provision, approved on 28 April, imposes fines of 137.50
Euros and jail terms of up to a week for women caught wearing the burqa in

Jansone said her Council had worked to promote an "open attitude to Islam"
within Christian churches, and did not expect ties with Muslim
organizations to be affected by the ban.

However, an Orthodox bishop backed the restriction and said Christian
doctrine held that "human beings are created with faces" and should be able to
look at each other "to be a full person." 

"As Orthodox Christians, we're experienced in having to respect the rules
of the country we live in," said Bishop Athenagoras Peckstadt,
representative of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Belgium. "Most of those who
wear the burqa do so because they are obliged to. Isn't this itself a
violation of human rights?"

The ban was condemned as discriminatory by the International Imam
Organization, which said in a 20 July statement it was "not only distressing but
disgraceful for the Islamic community residing in the country as well as
outside," and warned it would "create more tension between Islam and the West."

Meanwhile, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas
Hammarberg, deplored the ban as a symptom of "Islamophobia and anti-Muslim
prejudices which continue to undermine tolerance in Europe," and said it was
more likely to "stigmatize" Muslim women and lead them to avoid public places,
such as hospitals and government offices.

"We react strongly against any regime ruling that women must be dressed in
full-cover veils. This is absolutely repressive and should not be
accepted," Hammarberg said in a 20 July website commentary. "However, the problem
is not solved by targeting and penalizing the women." 

A spokesman for Belgium's Roman Catholic Bishops Conference, Geert
Lesarge, said his church had not been consulted about the burqa ban, and had no
official opinion about the measure or its possible impact on inter-faith

Philippe Chevalier, director of Belgium's Brussels Inter-Church Committee,
said he believed the total concealing of faces was "unacceptable and
unrealistic," but said the ban would concern only a tiny proportion of Belgium's
600,000 Muslims.

Belgium is the second European country to ban the public wearing of the
burqa after France, which enforced a prohibition on 11 April. At least 30
French Muslims have since been fined or prosecuted, according to a July report
from the Open Society Foundation, while others have complained of verbal
and physical abuse.

Similar bans are under consideration in Austria, Denmark and the
Netherlands, as well as in Switzerland, where citizens voted in a November 2009
referendum to ban the building of minarets.

"Christian churches should speak up in defense of Muslim rights as a means
of self-protection," said Jansone, who believes greater efforts should be
made to "provide a relevant infrastructure for Muslims to participate in

Jonathan Luxmoore

Jonathan Luxmoore writes for Ecumenical News International.

All articles »