Belgium is home to about half a million Muslims, around a dozen or so who wear the face veil, but feels threatened enough to move to ban the veil.
A Belgian parliamentary committee has voted to ban face-covering Islamic veils from being worn in public.
The home affairs committee voted unanimously to endorse the move, which must be approved by parliament for it to become law. Such a vote could be held within weeks, correspondents say, meaning that Belgium could become the first European country to implement a ban.
The BBC’s Dominic Hughes reports from Brussels that there are about 500,000 Muslims in Belgium, and the Belgian Muslim Council says only a couple of dozen wear full-face veils.
Several districts of Belgium have already banned the burka in public places under old local laws originally designed to stop people masking their faces completely at carnival time.
The wording of the draft law approved by the parliamentary committee says the ban would apply to areas accessible to the public – which would include people walking in the street or using public transport – and would be enforced by fines or even prison.
Denis Ducarme, from the Belgian centre-right Reformist Movement that proposed the bill, said he was “proud that Belgium would be the first country in Europe which dares to legislate on this sensitive matter”. A colleague, Corinne De Parmentier, said: “We have to free women of this burden.”
See “Europe’s Paranoia on Veil”, MCB press release, 31 March 2010