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Berlusconi allies seek to ban burqas in Italy
MILAN (Reuters) - Italy's anti-immigration Northern League party is pushing for legislation to prosecute women who cover their faces with burqas and veils, prompting a new debate on Muslims' religious freedom in the Catholic country.
The Northern League, allies of conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, want to amend a 1975 law, introduced amid worries over homegrown guerrilla groups, which punishes with hefty fines and up to two years in jail people covering their faces with anything preventing their identification by police.
Roberto Cota, head of the Northern League deputies who signed the proposal, said it was motivated by security concerns.
It would extend an existing partial ban on face-covering clothing to include "garments worn for reasons of religious affiliation", and removes the expression "justified cause" which has prompted some courts to allow them on religious grounds.
The League's proposal is creating more controversy surrounding the ruling coalition which is under pressure after a high court lifted Berlusconi's immunity from trials and a spate of sex scandals surrounding the prime minister's life.
Mario Scialoja, a retired Italian diplomat who sits on the board of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, warned against passing a law that would stigmatise Muslims.
"A ban (on the burqa) would be xenophobic and discriminatory. The existing law should be enforced," Scialoja told Reuters, urging Italian authorities to treat women with respect. "We say no to a new law".
The draft legislation is hotly opposed by the centre-left opposition as well as among Italy's roughly 1.2 million Muslims, almost two percent of the mainly Catholic population.
Donatella Ferranti, a member of the opposition Democratic Party, criticised the plan as "unconstitutional because it infringes on religious freedom".
Barbara Pollastrini, former centre-left minister for equal opportunities, said the current legislation was sufficient, but needed to be more effectively enforced because the burqa "conveys a message of violation of women's human rights".
The burqa, a garment which covers women from head to foot, is not prescribed by the Koran, Scialoja explained.
Barbara Saltamartini, responsible for equal opportunities in Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, said "Muslim women have the right to their own identity and the burqa is not part of the Muslim tradition".
Berlusconi's centre-right coalition has clashed with the Muslim community in the past over its opposition to the construction of new mosques.
France, whose five million Muslims make up Europe's largest Islamic minority, banned Muslim headscarves in state schools in 2004 and a recent proposal for a burqa ban has sparked outcry in the Muslim world.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)
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