German president in row over hijabs, says religious symbols must be banned

BERLIN (AP) – Germany’s president on Sunday urged legislators to be “consistent” in drawing up any ban on Muslim headscarves for public school teachers, arguing that if the hijab is banished from the classroom as a religious symbol, those of other faiths also would have to go.

Johannes Rau, whose largely ceremonial post is seen as the country’s moral voice, attracted criticism from several prominent conservative politicians and church figures after entering the debate last week with a call for equal treatment of all religions.

French President Jacques Chirac has asked his parliament to ban the wearing of hijabs and other conspicuous religious symbols, such as Jewish skullcaps and large crosses, in public schools to protect the country’s secularism.

Chirac’s proposal, which also includes giving company managers the right to decide if religious symbols can be worn at work, has drawn criticism and protests in numerous Muslim countries.

Many Europeans argue that the headscarf is a political symbol, not a religious one – a position that Rau, who has taken no position on the merits of a ban, did not address in remarks published by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

“I am just saying that the decisions that will now be made in the states should be consistent,” Rau told Welt am Sonntag.

“That means that if one bans the headscarf in schools as a religious symbol, it is difficult to defend the monk’s habit,” he added. “Our constitution requires equal treatment of religions in the public sphere – including schools. That does not put our Christian heritage in question.”

Germany has been divided over whether to ban Muslim teachers from wearing hijabs since the country’s highest court ruled in September that veils were allowed unless existing legislation specifically outlawed them.

Decisions on education lie in the hands of the country’s 16 states – two of which, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria, have drawn up legislation that would ban teachers from wearing headscarves, but would not apply to the display of Christian or Jewish symbols. The high court ruling stated that any new laws must treat all religions equally.

Germany has roughly 3.5 million Muslims, mostly of Turkish origin.

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