Official's pro-Burqa stance stirs controversy

Treviso, Italy - Remarks by a top official in the northeastern Italian city of Treviso that women should be allowed to wear burqa-type garments for religious reasons has drawn sharp criticism including Muslim leaders, the Treviso-based daily La Tribuna reported on Tuesday.

'It [wearing the burqa] is a custom based on precise cultural and religious aspects, hence it can be worn as long as the woman when requested allows herself to be identified,' Prefect Vittorio Capocelli was quoted as saying by the paper.

The comments by the prefect, who is responsible for public order in Treviso, were condemned by Mayor Gian Paolo Gobbo, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party.

'The burqa is a disguise. It means not showing one's face, disguising oneself so as not to be identified,' Gobbo said in an interview with private broadcaster Radio 24.

Treviso is not new to controversy over the burqa, the garment worn by women in some Muslim cultures that covers the whole body and the face.

In 2004 police stopped three women for wearing the burqa in Treviso, a traditional Northern League stronghold, but where many immigrants working in nearby industries also live.

The police action was based on legislation - introduced in 1975 when Italy was in the grips of left - and right-wing terrorism - prohibiting people from concealing their face in public without good reason, such as a motorcyclist wearing a helmet.

Interior Minister Giuliano Amato has spoken out against the burqa, and on Tuesday the ANSA news agency quoted his spokesman Fabrizio Forquet as saying that wearing the garment was 'unacceptable.'

A leading member of Italy's Muslim community Mario Scialoja described allowing women to wear the burqa as 'inopportune,' adding that there was no obligation in Islam for women to wear the garment, but that it was a custom of 'some Muslim populations.'

Souad Sbai, who heads the Association of Moroccan Women in Italy and sits on a government-appointed body for matters regarding Islam, was more vocal in her response.

'It is a scandal. There's a law from 1975 and it is valid for everyone,' she said, adding that any decision to allow the burqa were 'dangerous, because if implemented many [Muslim] women would be forced to wear it.'

Last year a rightwing lawmaker was placed under police escort after saying she received death threats from an imam for criticising the wearing of face veils by Muslim women.

Some 1 million Muslims, most of them immigrants, are estimated to live in overwhelmingly catholic Italy.