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New EU presidency to avoid burqa issue
By ROBERT WIELAARD
Associated Press
2009-07-01 12:48 AM
Sweden assumes the presidency of the European Union pushing for adoption of common rules on immigration but tiptoeing around the discussion about banning burqas and other Islamic garments.

The 27-nation EU must not dictate an Islamic dress code, Swedish Justice Minister Beatrice Ask said Tuesday, adding that "the European Union is a union of freedom."

The influx of Muslim immigrants has stirred debate in European countries about the wearing of headscarves and full-body robes in public places.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy two weeks ago told lawmakers that the all-covering burqa would not be welcome in France.

Ask said Sweden will not raise that debate to an EU level, because it has "enough to do" in its six-month stint in charge of the presidency, starting Wednesday.

"I don't think it is a question for the European Union," she told reporters in Stockholm. "I think we leave that for local politicians."

A key priority for Sweden, which has been a top European destination for refugees from Iraq and Somalia, is to get broad support from its partners for common immigration and asylum rules. Those issues remain largely national responsibilities as governments are wary of ceding authority in justice matters to the EU.

Ask and Swedish Migration Minister Tobias Billstrom said legal immigration is key to growth and prosperity in the EU whose population is aging fast.

Anti-Islamic and anti-immigration parties in several EU nations posted significant gains in the June 7 European Parliament elections. Sweden has not seen a strong backlash against immigrants, but observers say that could change as the immigrant population grows.

In neighboring Denmark the government is drafting legislation that would ban judges from wearing Islamic headscarves as well as other religious symbols such as crucifixes and Jewish skull caps. The move followed a heated Cabinet discussion about hijabs though there are no known cases of Danish judges wearing the traditional Muslim head scarf in court.

In France, a controversial 2003 law banned students from wearing apparel with religious connotations, like the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skull cap and large Christian crosses, in public schools. A legislative commission is now studying the wearing of body-cloaking Muslim robes.

A growing number of Belgian schools is also banning headscarves.

The package of immigration measures that Sweden is pushing is part of a wider program that also includes steps to boost cooperation in the fight against organized crime and terrorism, better data protection rights for individual citizens and common rules on electronic registration of foreigners entering and exiting the EU _ similar to the U.S. practice of fingerprinting visitors.

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