Moderator accuses France of religious intolerance

One of Scotland’s leading churchmen has accused the French government of "persecuting" its own citizens with new laws banning the wearing of religious head-gear in schools and their regulation in the workplace.

The Right Reverend Professor Iain Torrance, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, has written a strong letter of protest over the issue claiming the plans would cause "great distress" to many who wished only to be loyal to their faith and their country.

The French President, Jacques Chirac, announced earlier this year that the Islamic headscarf (hijab) and other overt religious symbols such as the Jewish skull cap were to be banned from state schools.

The proposed ban, which the French government says will promote equality, has met with UK and international criticism with demonstrations in Britain by Muslim women and protests by religious groups in other countries.

But the Moderator is the first Scottish church leader to have spoken out on the subject which he claims damages the principle of freedom of religion throughout Europe.

Torrance says that the ban recalls the pre-Christmas controversy in Scotland over suggestions that secular bodies were seeking to ban the religious element from Christmas celebrations. The Royal Sick Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh refused to distribute a free Christmas CD with Christian references around its wards in case it offended people from other religions.

"The argument then was that to allow this element would give offence to people of other faiths," wrote Torrance. "It was a telling counter argument, therefore, that prominent voices from within the other faith communities were raised in defence of Christmas as a Christian celebration.

"It is in that same spirit that I write, as a Christian church leader, in support of those who are protesting at the moves by your government to ban the display of makers of religious identity in schools and to regulate their use in the workplace."

Torrance says he "fully recognises" that France is a secular state. "However, what you now propose is effectively to elevate secularism into a matter of faith and thereby to create a persecuting religion.

"I remind you that freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of the European Union. Attempts to coerce people into some kind of secular uniformity will cause great distress to many who only wish to be loyal both to their faith and their country."

Torrance cites the example of Sikh soldiers wearing turbans who gave their lives in France in both world wars. "Are their descendants now to be persecuted in this way?"

Torrance has been supported by the Inter Faith Council, which includes representatives from Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faiths.

In a reply to Torrance, Michel Roche, the consul-general of France, said the ban would only apply in state schools and denied that the move was "anti-religious". "The Bill aims to reaffirm that state schools are a place where knowledge is passed on, where neutrality must be the norm and equality between everyone absolutely defended.

"Unlike many other countries, French citizenship is not based on membership of a specific cultural, ethnic or religious group but on support for commonly-accepted principles. Secularism is one of those principles."