MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin spoke out Thursday against the wearing of headscarves in Russian schools in his first public comment on a potentially explosive issue.

Putin's statement follows a recent incident in Russia's southern region of Stavropol during which a school principal forbade girls from Muslim families from wearing headscarves to class. Their parents protested and the principal said she was threatened.

Asked to comment on the issue, Putin clearly voiced his opposition to headscarves at schools, saying that Russia is a secular state and must create equal conditions for all its citizens.

At the same time, Putin sought to calm passions raised by the dispute, saying that authorities must show a due respect to followers of all religions.

"We have a secular state, and we must proceed from that," Putin said at a meeting with supporters.

Other countries also have faced debate over the issue.

This month, police in Azerbaijan clashed with citizens protesting a ban on the wearing of headscarves in the mainly Muslim ex-Soviet nation's secondary schools.

In Europe, France and Belgium have banned the wearing of headscarves or face-covering Islamic veils in public, as have some towns in Spain and elsewhere.

Putin said Russia should learn from the decisions of such countries. "We must have a look at how such issues are solved by our neighbors in European countries, and all will become clear," he said.

An estimated 20 million of Russia's 143 million people are Muslims, and they make up the majority of the population in many regions, including the oil-rich province of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, as well as Chechnya and neighboring provinces in the volatile North Caucasus.

Putin said that with Russian Orthodox believers making up a majority, any departure from secular rules in public life could eventually lead to the infringement on the rights of followers of other religions. "It would be better if all people feel equal," he added.

If the dispute over headscarves escalates in Russia, it could fuel tensions between the federal government and Chechnya and other Muslim-dominated provinces.

Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has imposed a tight Islamic dress code on females. Girls and women are strongly advised to wear headscarves in public.

Kadyrov's feared black-clad security forces have used paintball guns, threats and insults against those failing to obey.

The Kremlin has relied on Kadyrov, the ruthless Chechen strongman leader, to stabilize the region after two separatist wars since 1994 and turned a blind eye to his campaign for enforcing Islamic rules as well as massive rights abuses.

Putin said Thursday that one possible way out of the headscarves dispute would be the introduction of school uniforms.

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