EU won't take sides in Turkey headscarf dispute-Rehn

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UNITED NATIONS, Sept 28 (Reuters) The European Union will not take sides in Turkey's bitter debate about whether to ease restrictions on women wearing the Muslim headscarf, European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.

The EU's main concern is that a planned new Turkish constitution should enhance fundamental freedoms, especially freedom of expression and religion, Rehn told Reuters on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

''As regards the headscarf issue, that is a matter for domestic democratic debate in Turkey,'' he said.

''We are agnostic on the matter as long as Turkey respects the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, which broadly leave the matter to member states to decide,'' he said, The ruling AK Party, which has Islamist roots, has vowed to overhaul the constitution which dates back to a period of military rule in the early 1980s to bring it into line with European standards of human rights.

But the country's secular elite fears the changes may boost the influence of religion in the Muslim country.

Turkey's top judges waded into the debate today with a call to protect the secular system of government.

''Any weakening of the secular principle, directly or indirectly, by new regulations is absolutely unacceptable,'' the heads of the Court of Appeals said in a statement.

University rectors have expressed similar concerns about the government's intentions after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told the Financial Times this month he wanted to lift the ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities.

EU officials say member states have widely varying practices and there is no common European legislation on the issue.

France banned the wearing of distinctive religious symbols in 2004. The Dutch government agreed last year on a total ban on the wearing of burqas and other Muslim face veils in public, citing security grounds.

But Britain and many other EU states allow the headscarf in the name of civil liberty, or leave it to local schools to make their own policy.

Reuters MP VP0200

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