Catholics feel heat from Muslim veil row-cardinal

A French cardinal said on Thursday Catholics were feeling the heat from anti-religious militants in France as politicians stir up old passions by debating a planned ban on the Muslim veil in public schools,

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, said bishops around the country had reported dozens of cases in which Roman Catholic girls had been harassed for wearing a cross, or nuns criticised for appearing in public in their habits.

The law, which a wide spectrum of French politicians and voters support as a bulwark against rising Islamist influence among Muslim immigrants, would be "just the beginning of a long crisis", he told France-Inter radio.

Leaders of France's five-million strong Muslim community have also reported recent cases of harassment, such as banks and municipal offices refusing to serve veiled women, since President Jacques Chirac announced the planned ban last month.

"At a university in Paris, a woman wearing a small cross had it torn off by other students," Lustiger said. "A nun who was crossing a street in the garb of her religious order was told by passers-by: 'You shouldn't go out in your habit'.

"I could tell you dozens of other cases the bishops have reported," he added.

Lustiger said France's strict separation of church and state in 1905 had calmed tensions after the sometimes violent struggle of anti-clerical politicians who curbed the privileges of the once-mighty Catholic Church.

To many French, that struggle ranks second only to the 1789 revolution as a milestone in the creation of modern France -- one reason why so many refuse to make concessions now to Islam.

Lustiger stressed France had "religious peace" now but added: "This law, with all its excesses, risks opening up a war of religions... The politicians should realise what they are stirring up."

The cardinal, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants and a teenage convert to Catholicism, said the Church accepted the secular system and would not oppose a law once passed.

But he doubted it would be effective, predicting instead an endless series of trials as Muslims try to defend the veil some of them see as a religious duty and a sign of religious freedom.