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French Burqa Ban Commission Created

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PARIS — A top Muslim group in Britain lashed out at Nicolas Sarkozy as "patronizing and offensive" on Tuesday, after the French president said body- and face-covering Islamic garments such as the burqa turn women into prisoners.

In Paris, parliament formally created a commission Tuesday to study the wearing of body-cloaking Muslim robes in France, a day after Sarkozy told lawmakers that the burqa would not be welcome in the country.

A top official with the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella organization for British Muslim groups, accused Sarkozy of "divisive politics," and said his comments could fan an "Islamophobic reaction" in Europe.

"It is patronizing and offensive to suggest that those Muslim women who wear the burqa do so because of pressure or oppression by their male partners or guardians," the council's assistant secretary-general, Reefat Drabu, said in a statement. "Such suggestions can legitimately be perceived as antagonistic towards Islam."

One of Britain's highest-profile Muslim politicians also joined the debate, saying it was not the government's job to decide what people should or should not wear.

"This freedom to choose is one of the great values of our nation and why we are revered around the world," Communities Minister Shahid Malik said. "There are no laws stating what clothes or attire are acceptable and so whether one chooses to wear a veil or burqa, a miniskirt or goth outfit is entirely at the individual's discretion."

In Paris, the 32-member commission set up by parliament, with members from France's four major political parties, will hold hearings that could lead to legislation banning burqas from being worn in public _ a move a top human rights group said would be counterproductive.

"Banning the burqa will not give freedom to women," Jean-Marie Fardeau, director of the Paris office of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "It will only stigmatize and marginalize women who wear it."

France has Western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at 5 million. A small but growing group of French women wear burqas and niqabs, which either cloak the entire body or cover everything but the eyes.

Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, said he disagreed with the wearing of burqas as inconsistent with religious precepts _ but said a ban would be counterproductive.

"A commission on a marginal phenomenon astonishes us _ even more so because the current debate tends to stigmatize Muslims in France," Moussaoui was quoted as saying in comments to be published Wednesday in France's Le Parisien daily. The Associated Press received an advance copy of his remarks.

On Monday, Sarkozy told a joint session of parliament that he supported banning burqas in public, calling them "a sign of debasement" for women.

"We cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," Sarkozy said. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."

Last week, a group of 60 lawmakers from all political parties signed a petition demanding a parliamentary study on the wearing of burqas. Muslim groups and government officials say it is difficult to know how many women wear burqas and niqabs in France, but estimate the number to be at least in the hundreds. They are far less prevalent than simpler Muslim head scarves.

The commission is expected within six months to complete its work, which could lead to a proposed law on burqas.

A similar type of commission led to a 2004 law banning the wearing of Muslim head scarves at public schools, along with Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

In France, the terms "burqa" and "niqab" often are used interchangeably. A burqa is a full-body covering worn largely in Afghanistan _ with only a mesh screen over the eyes. A niqab is a full-body veil, often black, with slits for the eyes.

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AP writer Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.