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US pastor’s plans for Quran burning condemned worldwide

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The Times of India

PARIS: The planned mass burning of copies of the Quran in the US state of Florida drew worldwide condemnation on Wednesday, with the Vatican saying it would be “an outrageous and grave gesture.”

Secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the most senior US official to speak out against the burning scheduled for the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, branded the plan by a little known evangelical church as “disgraceful.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said he was “deeply disturbed” by the planned burnings and said they “cannot be condoned by any religion.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the move was “abhorrent” and “simply wrong.”

“If a fundamentalist, envangelical pastor in America wants to burn the Quran on September 11, then I find this simply disrespectful, even abhorrent and simply wrong,” Merkel said in a speech.

” Europe… is a place where freedom of belief, of religion, where respect for beliefs and religions, are valuable commodities,” Merkel said at an event honouring a Danish cartoonist whose 2005 drawing of the Prophet Mohammed offended many Muslims and sparked protests around the world.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton also condemned the planned act, while Arab League chief Amr Mussa dubbed Pastor Terry Jones a “fanatic” and told AFP he was urging Americans to oppose the “destructive approach.”

Jones’s Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, has vowed to mark Saturday’s ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning Qurans as they remember almost 3,000 people killed by al-Qaida hijackers.

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said in a statement: “Each religion, with its respective sacred books, places of worship and symbols, has the right to respect and protection”.

The Vatican council said “deplorable acts of violence” like those in New York and Washington could not be counteracted by such acts.

“Each religious leader and believer is also called to renew the firm condemnation of all forms of violence, in particular those committed in the name of religion.”

The White House added its voice to warnings that the move could trigger outrage around the Islamic world and endanger the lives of US soldiers.

“It puts our troops in harm’s way. And obviously any type of activity like that puts our troops in harm’s way would be a concern to this administration,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Tuesday.

He was reiterating comments by top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, who warned burning the holy book of Islam would provide propaganda for insurgents.

The United Nations’ top envoy for Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, earlier said it would harm his staff if “such an abhorrent act were to be implemented, it would only contribute to fuelling the arguments of those who are indeed against peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.”

“It could also put in jeopardy the efforts of so many Afghans and foreigners who are trying to assist Afghanistan to find its own way to peace and stability within the framework of its own culture, traditions and indeed religion.”

The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an umbrella group representing aid groups in Afghanistan, said ts members in the war-wracked country could be killed if Jones goes ahead with his “irresponsible” plan.

Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, who met with Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said the top US law enforcement official described as “idiotic and dangerous” the Florida church’s plan.

Police reportedly cannot intervene until Jones’s followers actually light the 200 Qurans.

A senior Muslim Brotherhood official, Essam al-Erian, said in Cairo that the Florida ceremony would be a “barbaric act reminiscent of the Inquisition” and would “increase hatred towards the United States in the Muslim world.”

A top official of Cairo’s Al-Azhar university, which US President Barack Obama referred to as a “beacon of learning” in an appeal for reconciliation with Muslims, warned that the plan risked destroying ties.

“If the government fails to stop this, this will be the latest manifestation of religious terrorism, and it would ruin America’s relations with the Muslim world,” said Sheikh Abdel Muti al-Bayyumi, who sits on the Sunni Muslim seat of learning’s highest council, the Islamic Research Academy.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said the burning of the Quran contradicted Christian teachings.

In Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Islamist Hamas movement, called on the US administration in a statement “to stop this crime before it takes place.”

Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani, a senior religious expert from Iran’s holy city of Qom, said in a statement carried by Iranian media: “The decision to insult this sacred book, is an insult to all (religious) sanctities especially prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Virgin Mary.

Jordan’s powerful Islamist opposition also condemned the plans as “a declaration of war.”

The German church founded by Jones denounced the plans as “shocking.”

“We want to distance ourselves fully from this plan and from Jones,” said Stephan Baar from the “Christian Community of Cologne” in western Germany.

Women protest as French Cabinet gets veil ban bill

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By ELAINE GANLEY

PARIS – One runs her own company, another is a housewife and a third, a divorcee, raises her children by herself. Like nearly 2,000 other Muslim women who freely wear face-covering veils anywhere in France, their lives will soon change and they are worried.

On Wednesday, French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie presented a draft law to the Cabinet banning Muslim veils that cover the face, the first formal step in a process to forbid such attire in all public places in France. It calls for euro150 ($185) fines and, in some cases, citizenship classes for women who run afoul of the law.

The measure notably creates a new offense, “inciting to hide the face,” and anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil risks a year in prison and a euro15,000 ($18,555) fine, according to a copy of the text.

“Citizenship should be experienced with an uncovered face,” President Nicolas Sarkozy told the Cabinet meeting, in remarks released by his office. “There can be no other solution but a ban in all public places.”

Although the Interior Ministry estimates there are only 1,900 women in France who cover their faces with veils, the planned law would be another defining moment for Islam here as the nation tries to bring its Muslim population – at least 5 million, the largest in western Europe – into the mainstream, even by force of law.

The bill is to go before parliament in July, and despite the acrimonious debate that is sure to come, there is little doubt the measure will become law. Sarkozy, who says such veils oppress women, wants a law banning them on the books as soon as possible.

“If the law is voted, I won’t take off my veil. … No one will dictate my way of life” but God, said Najat, a divorcee, who gave her age as “45 plus.” She was one of a half-dozen women who, in a rare move, met with reporters on Tuesday to express their worries about changes they say will impact their lives to the core.

Like others, she refused to give her full name. All said they fear for their safety in an increasingly tense climate. Najat was among those who said she has been increasingly harassed since debate over the planned law began nearly a year ago.

Amnesty International urged French lawmakers to reject the bill. The London-based organization said its expert on discrimination in Europe, John Dalhuisen, believes a complete ban would violate rights to freedom of expression and religion for women who wear the face veils “as an expression of their identity or beliefs.”

A French anti-racism group, MRAP, which opposes such dress, said a law would be “useless and dangerous.”

Sarkozy welcomed the bill, saying the government is embarking on “a just path” and urging parliament to take its “moral responsibility” and approve it.

The final draft text says France’s founding tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity, values that guarantee the “social pact,” are at stake.

The women beg to differ, claiming that France is betraying itself.

“Liberty. Liberty. I’m in France, in the land of liberty, equality, fraternity. I had the impression I was living it,” said Oum Al Khyr, of Montreuil, on the edge of eastern Paris.

The measure, which could be amended once it reaches parliament, foresees a six-month delay in its application to explain the law and mediate with recalcitrant women who cover their faces, which means it wouldn’t take effect until early in 2011.

A similar veil ban is in the works in neighboring Belgium.

France has already walked this road, banning Muslim headscarves, and other “ostentatious” religious symbols, from classrooms in 2004.

The bespectacled Najat, with a French mother and Moroccan father, said she has covered her face with a veil for 10 years. Najat said that because she is divorced and raising her children alone no one “can say this is imposed on me.”

“I won’t leave” France if the veil is outlawed. “Why should I leave?” Najat said, waving her French passport.

The women predicted that their “sisters,” other women who veil themselves, would hide out in their homes so as not to get caught breaking the law. Several said they would take their case to the European Court of Human Rights if arrested.

With the law, “They are giving people the right to attack us,” said Kenza Drider, of Avignon in the south, who is married with four children. She was the only fully veiled woman to be interviewed by a parliamentary panel during a six-month inquiry.

“To tell a sister you can’t wear this veil is to say you can’t practice your religion,” said Oum Al Khyra.

The bill turns on the “dignity of the person” rather than security issues, as had been widely speculated. It was unclear if that would make it more vulnerable to constitutional attacks.

The French government decided to risk running up against the constitution, despite a warning from the Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, which said March 30 that a full ban would likely not pass constitutional muster. It confirmed its “unfavorable opinion” on a general ban in a final report last week, according to the daily Le Figaro.

France’s Muslim leaders have said the face-covering veil is not required by Islam, but have also warned that a ban on the full veil risks stigmatizing all Muslims.

In a country where fashion counts, and is often revealing, there is a visceral reaction among some French to veils that cover women from head to toe and conceal the face, sometimes including the eyes.

Critics of the garb say such dress is an affront to gender equality and undermines the nation’s secular foundations by bringing religion into the streets. Others say the face-covering veil is the gateway to radical Islam.

The six women speaking Tuesday tackled such arguments, saying that their dignity cannot be dictated by the state, that they do not represent a terrorist threat and that secularism should give them the right to practice their religion as they see fit. They correctly note that women make up less than 20 percent of the 577 lawmakers in the French National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.

“They say they are going to free us,” said Drider. But “it’s the state who will force us into cloisters. We will have to sue for sequestration.”

Karima, 31, who runs an import-export company, said she has been wearing a burqa-like veil for 16 years – more than half her life, she notes – and “I don’t even know how to take it off.”