Belgium's Burqa Ban Divides Christians

07/27/2011 05:39 pm ET | Updated Sep 26, 2011

By Jonathan Luxmoor
c. 2011 Religion News Service

(RNS/ENInews) Belgian Christians expressed mixed reactions to the country's new "burqa ban," as Belgium joined France in criminalizing the Islamic veil.

"We're against this ruling, since it violates basic human rights," said Kristine Jansone, general secretary of the Brussels-based Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe.

"Although I can't speak on behalf of all our member-groups, I think it's the general consensus we should oppose a measure which will clearly impede the free practice of religion."

The new law, which began implementation on Saturday (July 23), imposes fines of 137.50 Euros ($197.50) and jail terms of up to a week for women caught wearing the burqa in public.

Orthodox Bishop Athenagoras Peckstadt backed the restriction and said Christian doctrine held that "human beings are created with faces" and should be able to look at each other "to be a full person."

"As Orthodox Christians, we're experienced in having to respect the rules of the country we live in," said Peckstadt, a representative of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Belgium. "Most of those who wear the burqa do so because they are obliged to. Isn't this itself a violation of human rights?"

The ban was condemned as discriminatory by the International Imam Organization, which called it "not only distressing but disgraceful for the Islamic community residing in the country as well as outside."

A spokesman for Belgium's Roman Catholic Bishops Conference said it has no official opinion about the measure.

Philippe Chevalier, director of Belgium's Brussels Inter-Church Committee, said veiling faces is "unacceptable and unrealistic," but said the ban would concern only a tiny proportion of Belgium's 600,000 Muslims.

Belgium is the second European country to ban the public wearing of the burqa after France, which enforced a prohibition in April.

At least 30 French Muslims have since been fined or prosecuted, according to a July report from the Open Society Foundation.

Similar bans are under consideration in Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland.