PARIS (Reuters) - The leaders of France's six main religions warned the government on Wednesday against a planned debate on Islam they say could stigmatise Muslims and fuel prejudice as the country nears national elections next year.
Weighing in on an issue that is tearing apart President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, the Conference of French Religious Leaders said the discussion about respect for France's secular system could only spread confusion at a turbulent time.
The UMP plans to hold a public forum on secularism next week that critics decry as veiled Muslim-bashing to win back voters who defected to the far-right National Front at local polls last week and could thwart Sarkozy's reelection hopes in 2012.
Sarkozy's allies are split over the populist strategy, with moderates such as Prime Minister Francois Fillon publicly opposing what they see as the UMP's drift to the far right.
Stressing that faith should foster social harmony, the religous leaders said the debate could "cloud this perspective and incite confusion that can only be prejudicial."
"Is a political party, even if it is in the majority, the right forum to lead this by itself?" they asked in a rare joint statement.
The statement was signed by the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox Christian and Buddhist faiths. The leaders formed the group last year to coordinate their approach to religious issues in public debate.
UMP party leader Jean-Francois Cope rejected accusations of fear-mongering, saying the debate about how the secular system is respected in practice would ensure equality for all faiths.
But many critics say the issues the UMP stresses -- veiled women, halal food in school cafeterias, Muslims praying in the street outside overcrowded mosques -- all target Islam.
The faith leaders said France has held many long and serious debates about its secular system, introduced in 1905 to separate the church and state, and questioned the need for another one.
"We are working for a common sense secularism," they said. "Secularism cannot be separated from our fundamental values, especially the dignity and respect for the human person."
Individual religious leaders have supported Muslims, who at about five million constitute France's second-largest religion after Catholicism. "It's often difficult to be a Muslim in France," Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim said last week.
"This difficulty is worse today in this unhealthy climate, aggravated by talk that divides rather than unites," the Jewish leader told the daily Le Monde.
French Protestant Federation head Pastor Claude Baty has joined Muslim leaders in announcing he would boycott the round-table discussions the UMP has scheduled for April 5.
The planned debate at a Paris hotel next Tuesday is supposed to draw up a list of proposals that could be applied quickly to counter what the UMP sees as violations of the secular system.
France also plans to implement a ban on full face veils in public starting on April 11, another policy concerning Islam that has been overshadowed by the uproar over the UMP debate.
A lay Muslim politician caused a stir this week by suggesting Muslims wear a five-pointed green star to protest against what he called persecution recalling that of wartime Jews forced by the Nazis to wear a yellow Star of David.
Abderrahmane Dahmane, who was fired as Sarkozy's advisor for diversity issues this month after criticising the UMP debate, also criticised Cope for suggesting Muslims should no longer pray in Arabic -- the language of the Koran -- in their mosques.
"This fascist climate evokes the sombre history of the Occupation in France, which sent thousands of Jews by train to the death camps," he said in a statement on Tuesday.
Richard Prasquier, head of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF, called the green star idea "totally grotesque."