The leaders of France’s six main religions warned the government on Wednesday against a planned debate on Islam they say could stigmatise Muslims and fuel prejudice as the country nears national elections next year.
Weighing in on an issue that is tearing apart President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, the Conference of French Religious Leaders said the discussion about respect for France’s secular system could only spread confusion at a turbulent time.
The UMP plans to hold a public forum on secularism next week that critics decry as veiled Muslim-bashing to win back voters who defected to the far-right National Front at local polls last week and could thwart Sarkozy’s reelection hopes in 2012.
Stressing that faith should foster social harmony, the religous leaders said the debate could “cloud this perspective and incite confusion that can only be prejudicial”. “Is a political party, even if it is in the majority, the right forum to lead this by itself?” they asked in a rare joint statement.
The statement was signed by the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox Christian and Buddhist faiths. The leaders formed the group last year to coordinate their approach to religious issues in public debate.
The faith leaders said France has held many long and serious debates about its secular system, introduced in 1905 to separate the church and state, and questioned the need for another one. “We are working for a common sense secularism,” they said. “Secularism cannot be separated from our fundamental values, especially the dignity and respect for the human person.”
Individual religious leaders have supported Muslims, who at about five million constitute France’s second-largest religion after Catholicism.
“It’s often difficult to be a Muslim in France,” Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim said last week. “This difficulty is worse today in this unhealthy climate, aggravated by talk that divides rather than unites,” the Jewish leader told the daily Le Monde.
French Protestant Federation head Pastor Claude Baty has joined Muslim leaders in announcing he would boycott the round-table discussions the UMP has scheduled for April 5.