SOFIA Bulgaria's parliament on Friday banned the wearing of face veils in public in a move supporters said would boost security after Islamist militant attacks in Europe, but which drew criticism from Amnesty International.
The "burqa ban" law, pushed by the nationalist Patriotic Front coalition, echoes similar measures in western European countries such as France, the Netherlands and Belgium which have various laws banning the wearing of niqab full-face veils or head-to-toe burqas.
People who do not comply with the ban in Bulgaria face fines of up to 1,500 levs ($860), as well as suspension of social benefits.
The ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms refused to take part in the vote, which followed full-face veil bans in public in several Bulgarian towns. It said the ban would incite ethic and religious intolerance.
The ruling centre-right GERB party said the ban has nothing to do with religious outfits but is only aimed at boosting national security and allowing better video surveillance.
"The law is not directed against religious communities and is not repressive," senior GERB lawmaker Krasimir Velchev said. "We made a very good law for the safety of our children."
According to the law, clothing hiding the face may not be worn in government offices, schools, cultural institutions and places of public recreation, but exceptions are allowed for health or professional reasons.
Human rights group Amnesty International said the ban violated Bulgarian women's rights to freedom of expression and religion, calling it part of a disturbing trend of intolerance, xenophobia and racism in the Black Sea state.
"Women in Bulgaria should be free to dress as they please and to wear the burqa or the niqab as an expression of their identity or beliefs," Amnesty International’s Europe Director John Dalhuisen said.
"Legitimate security concerns can be met with targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations and not through a blanket discriminatory ban such as this."
A minority of Muslim women in Europe cover their faces, but their veils have become symbols for some Europeans troubled by security, immigration and Muslim integration.
Muslims make up about 12 percent of Bulgaria's 7.2 million population and most belong to a centuries-old community, largely ethnic Turks.
Muslim women in the country traditionally do not wear niqabs or burqas, except for a small group in the Roma community who have recently started, sparking tensions in the city of Pazarzhik.
Many Bulgarians are concerned that the migrant inflows into Europe may pose a threat to their predominantly Orthodox Christian culture and help radicalise part of the country's long-established Muslim minority.
($1 = 1.7500 leva)
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)