Belgian parliament to vote on burqa ban

The Belgian parliament is likely to vote Thursday afternoon on whether to ban face coverings worn by observant Muslim women, the spokesman for a Belgian lawmaker said.

If passed, the ban would make Belgium the first country in Europe to outlaw the face coverings, which include both niqabs -- full veils that cover part of the face -- and burqas, which cover the entire body.

The law would still have to pass the upper house of parliament if it passes the lower house on Thursday, but Senate passage seems likely if the Chamber of Deputies approves it.

Members of parliament have said they're motivated both by security and morality in pushing for the ban.

"We think all people in public places must show their face," Denis Ducarme, of the liberal Reformist Movement, said earlier this month. "We must defend our values in the question of the freedom and the dignity of the woman."

The movement drafted the legislation and claims broad cross-party support.

Ducarme said it's not true that Islam requires women to wear burqas or niqabs.

"The majority of Muslims in Belgium and Europe don't accept the burqa, don't accept the niqab. It's only 10 percent who are radical," he said, blaming trends from Pakistan and Afghanistan for encouraging facial covering.

He estimated that 300 to 400 women in the country wear the niqab or the burqa.

Belgium is home to about 281,000 Muslims, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life estimates. That would make the country about 3 percent Muslim.

Abdullah Bastin, a Muslim political leader in Belgium, warned earlier this month that the legislation could actually encourage more women to adopt the veil.

One town in Belgium banned the burqa six years ago.

Jan Creemers, the mayor of the tiny picture-postcard city of Maaseik, said it was no problem to enforce the ban, and that he had the support of the local Moroccan community.

Some fines were handed out, and although none was paid, no one wears a veil in Maaseik today, he said.

The bill would impose a fine of 15-25 euros ($20-33) or imprisonment of one to seven days.

Amnesty International warned last week the bill would break international law, including the rights to freedom of expression and religion.

"Women must not be compelled to wear a headscarf or veil, either by the state or by individuals; and it is wrong for them to be prohibited by law from wearing it," Claudio Cordone, Amnesty's interim secretary-general, said in a statement.

(Published by CNN - April 29,2010)

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