MONTREAL -- In a move likely to inflame Canada's Muslim community, the government said on Monday it would bar all women wearing face coverings from taking part in citizenship swearing-in ceremonies.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said he had received complaints from citizenship judges and parliamentarians about veiled women taking the oath to become Canadian.
"Requiring that all candidates show their faces while reciting the oath allows judges and everyone present to share in the ceremony," Kenney said in a speech in Montreal.
"The citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act. It is a public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly."
Kenney said some citizenship judges were concerned that some Muslim women wearing face coverings were not actually reciting the oath.
"They told me last month that it’s a fairly common problem. Every week, in every region of the country, we’re dealing with situations where applicants arrive with a veil on,” Kenney said, according to The Globe and Mail. “Frankly, I found it bizarre that the rules allowed people to take the oath with a veil on.”
Kenney's announcement will affect women wearing the niqab -- a face veil with an eye opening -- as well as the burqa, which has a full face covering with a mesh area to allow vision.
The move might well trigger a court challenge from those who say the restriction violates freedom of religion provisions under Canada's constitution.
The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations said Kenney's move questioned the sincerity and good faith of some citizenship applicants and not others.
"This decision will have a damaging effect on our democracy because it forces those who wear the niqab to choose between their religious convictions and adopting Canadian citizenship," said Ihsaan Gardee, the council's acting executive director.
The most recent figures from Statistics Canada show that, in 2001, around 2 percent of the population was Muslim. Community leaders say the figure now is more like 3 percent of the country's 34.5 million people.
The location of the announcement was not without symbolism. The French-speaking province of Quebec has had debates over how much Canada should bend to accommodate newcomers.
The provincial government said last year it planned to ban Muslim women from receiving all official services if they have their faces covered.
Earlier this year, a court in France fined two Muslim women for wearing full-face veils in public, the first time a judge had imposed punishment under a "burqa ban" law.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the case of a Muslim woman who wanted to testify against her alleged rapists from behind her niqab. A decision has not yet been rendered.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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