French Religious leaders warn Sarkozy against Muslim debate

France’s main religions are protesting plans by President Nicolas Sarkozy, to hold a debate next week on Islam’s role in the country.

The leaders of France’s Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists published a joint statement Wednesday saying the debate could fuel prejudice  and add to the confusion in the times preceding the election.

In an attempt to win back voters who abandoned Sarkosy’s UMP party in the recent local polls, the UMP plans to hold a public forum on secularism next week that critics label as veiled Muslim-bashing.

Sarkozy’s allies are split over the populist strategy, and even Prime Minister Francois Fillon publicly opposes the move, seen as a drift to the right.

Stressing that faith should foster social harmony, the religous leaders said the debate could “cloud this perspective and incite confusion that can only be prejudicial.”

Backers of the debate say it’s aimed at discussing France’s secular traditions, and how to accommodate Islamic customs.

Amid the criticism, the UMP’s plans have been scaled back. The current idea is to hold a limited roundtable instead of a full-day debate.

The debate would have come the week before a law goes into effect banning face-covering Islamic veils such as the burqa or niqab anywhere in the streets of France.

France’s religious leaders praised as a “precious achievement” and as “one of the pillars” of national accord, the 1905 law which separates church and state.

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