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Italy asks women not to wear veils

ROME -- Women in Italy should not wear veils that cover their face, according to new government guidelines for immigrants that were drawn up in consultation with representatives of the main faiths, including Muslims.

The document, presented by Interior Minister Giuliano Amato on Monday, is Rome's response to a growing debate in Europe over integration standards for Muslim minorities.

"Types of clothing that cover the face are not acceptable because they prevent the identification of the person and are an obstacle to the interaction with others," it says.

Several European countries have already set tougher integration standards for their Muslim communities in the past three years, after bomb attacks in Madrid and London and the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a radical Islamist in the Netherlands.

Italy's "Charter of Values, Citizenship and Immigration" also states that polygamy is contrary to the rights of women and that marriages that are forced or between children are banned.

While the charter is not legally binding, it is meant to set common rules for immigrants, particularly Muslims, living in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

It does not address the issue of whether girls could wear headscarves in state schools, which is at the heart of the debate in most of Europe.

The document, issued by Romano Prodi's center-left government, was given a green light from the country's top Islamic association, Ucoii.

"This is not a discriminating charter, it's a charter for equality," said Ucoii leader Mohamed Nour Dachan.

However he added: "The veil is never humiliating for the woman who wears it. We recognize the culture and the religion of this country, but Islam too has given a lot to Europe and maybe this could have been mentioned."

The charter also offers guidance for immigrants requesting Italian citizenship, saying they should speak Italian and know "the essential elements of the national history and culture."

Around 3 million legal immigrants lived in Italy at the end of 2005, according to the latest data. Tens of thousands enter the country illegally every year.

The Dutch government agreed last year to a total ban on the wearing of burkas and other Muslim face veils in public.

In Britain, regarded as one of Europe's most lenient multicultural societies, Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the veil a "mark of separation."

In France, which has Europe's largest Muslim minority and has banned headscarves in schools since 2004, the debate on integration played a big role in the presidential election, with Nicolas Sarkozy drawing criticism from the left for his plans to create a ministry of immigration and national identity.