France's chief religions are protesting plans by President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party to hold a debate next week on Islam's role in the country, joining a growing chorus of voices who fear it could stigmatize Muslims and worsen social tensions.
The top representatives of France's Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists published a joint statement Wednesday saying the debate could add "to the confusion in the troubled period we are traversing."
Muslim leaders in France have said the debate will further stigmatize western Europe's largest Islamic population, estimated to number at least 5 million people.
The April 5 debate has divided Sarkozy's UMP party, with some seeing it as pandering to the resurgent far right National Front party. The National Front made electoral gains in local elections Sunday, while the UMP fared poorly.
The debate's backers say it's aimed at discussing France's secular traditions, and how to accommodate Islamic customs. Amid the criticism, the UMP's plans have been repeatedly scaled back and the idea now is for a limited roundtable instead of a full-day debate.
"Do we need, in the current context, a debate on secularism?" the religious leaders' statement asks. "Is a political party, even if it is in the majority, the right entity to lead such a debate alone?"
France has formally separated church and state since a 1905 law that the religious leaders praise as a "precious achievement" and "one of the pillars" of national accord.
"The acceleration of political agendas risks, on the eve of an electoral rendezvous that is important for the future of our country, fogging this perspective and provoking confusion that can only produce prejudice," the letter said.
The main champion of the debate, UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope, issued an open letter to Muslims this week saying he wants a new "Code of Secularity" that would spell out rules about how to keep public schools, streets and businesses secular.
"The practice of Islam in a secular nation is not the burqa, not prayers in the street, nor the rejection of diversity," he wrote in the letter, published on the website of the weekly L'Express.
The debate would come the week before a law goes into effect banning face-covering Islamic veils such as the burqa or niqab anywhere in the streets of France.