France Chides Pope for Comments on Secularism

The French official who first proposed a ban on religious symbols in state schools said on Tuesday Pope John Paul was misinformed about the controversy.

Bernard Stasi, who led a commission which proposed the ban on Muslim headscarves in school, said the head of the Roman Catholic Church should not give fundamentalists arguments to use against Paris.

His statement, published in the daily Le Monde, was a polite but firm rejection of the Pope's remark to Vatican diplomats last week that religious freedom was endangered in Europe by people seeking to ban religion from the public sphere.

"I regret that the sovereign pontiff is misinformed," Stasi wrote after expressing his respect for the Polish-born Pope, 83. "A law banning overly visible religious signs in school cannot be considered an attack on religious freedom."

"Rather than providing arguments to fundamentalists of all colors by evoking the threat of a campaign against religious freedom, (the Catholic Church) should help Islam in a brotherly way to find its place in secular France," he wrote.

The Pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, did not mention France in his speech but Stasi said it was clear he referred to it when he spoke of "an attitude in some European countries that could effectively endanger religious freedom."

The unusual public rebuff to the pontiff illustrated how hard it is for France to explain to foreigners how its planned ban on Muslim veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in schools is meant as an act of religious tolerance.

France officially separated church and state in 1905 after decades of sometimes bloody struggle against the then-powerful Catholic Church, which republican politicians accused of being authoritarian, monarchist, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic.

This produced a form of secularism that says the state must guarantee no religion gains the upper hand in school by upholding a neutrality that lets none be expressed at all. Most French agree with this and support the planned ban.

Muslim, Christian and Jewish religious leaders in France have opposed the ban. The head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, said France apparently feared religion could challenge its secular values.