By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - France barred four Islamic preachers from entering the country on Thursday after banning prominent preacher Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi and another Egyptian cleric who wanted to attend a Muslim conference in Paris.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and Interior Minister Claude Gueant said in a joint statement the four preachers "call for hate and violence ... and, in the current context, present a strong risk of upsetting public order".
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who ordered a crackdown on radical Islamists after the Toulouse killings by an al Qaeda-inspired gunman last week, said on Monday that Qaradawi and Mahmoud al-Masri were not welcome in France.
The Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), which invited the clerics to an April 6-9 conference, said it was surprised and hurt by the government's "manifest determination to prolong a polemic ... based on total ignorance".
Sarkozy and his UMP party, campaigning hard to win votes from the far-right National Front, have stressed divisive issues such as halal food and Islamic radicalism in their campaign for the two-round presidential election on April 22 and May 6.
The UOIF said the bans "risk deepening the feeling French Muslims have of being blacklisted and treated with prejudice".
FOUR BANS, ONE REGRET
The four preachers - a Palestinian, an Egyptian and two Saudis - were due to take part in an annual conference in Paris hosted by the UOIF, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
They are Ikrima al-Sabri, former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, Egyptian preacher Safwat al-Hijazi, Saudi self-help preacher Ayedh al-Qarni and Saudi imam and Koran reciter Abdallah Basfar.
The UOIF said none of them advocated violence.
The ministers regretted the UOIF had invited Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan, who teaches at Britain's Oxford University, but they did not bar him. They said his views "are contrary to the republican spirit and do no service to French Muslims".
Ramadan has a following among young French Muslims, whom he encourages to insist on their right to practice their faith despite official bans on religious symbols in state schools and in the public service.
France's five million Muslims are the largest Islamic minority in Europe.
Qaradawi, well-known in the Arabic-speaking world thanks to his weekly program on Al Jazeera television, was barred from Britain in 2008 after defending Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel and attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.
PREVIOUS VISITS WITHOUT PROBLEMS
UOIF President Ahmed Jaballah said Qaradawi was "a great, learned Muslim known for his moderation and balance" who had already visited France several times.
The UOIF said al-Masri had already been invited to two other conferences in France this year without French authorities raising any objections. He visited Paris last December.
Sabri addressed a conference in Evry, near Paris, last year.
But that was before Mohamed Merah, a French-born petty criminal known to have visited Afghanistan twice, shot dead seven people in a 10-day rampage in southwest France before police killed him after a 30-hour siege at his flat.
After that, Sarkozy announced plans last week to make it a crime to repeatedly consult Internet sites advocating Islamic extremism and to punish those who travel overseas for indoctrination or militant training.
Speaking at a campaign meeting on Thursday, Sarkozy urged Muslim organisations not to invite radical theologians into France, saying to do so would risk stigmatizing their religion.
"Be careful about inviting people onto our soil who harm you and give an image of your culture, your commitment, your religion that has nothing to do with what it should be," he told supporters in the southern town of Nimes.
Juppe and Gueant, meanwhile, said France respected all religions and upheld the right to free speech.
"But while France is hit by extremists who attack it in the name of ideologies and errant beliefs, it is crucial that these liberties are exercised within the law and with respect for our fundamental values," they said.
(Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou; Editing by Louise Ireland)