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Sikh mayor welcomes French president

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 | 07:14 pm

Charlottesville Sikh mayor, Satyendra Singh Huja, welcomed French President Francois Hollande and President Barack Obama to Virginia as they embarked on a tour of Thomas Jefferson's estate. France has banned turbans from government-related services, including schools and official photographs. The United Nations has declared France's policy a violation of religious freedom.

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In an ironic meeting yesterday, Francois Hollande, president of France, where turbans are banned from government-related services such as schools and official pictures, was welcomed to Virginia by the turbaned mayor of Charlottesville, Satyendra Singh Huja.

The mayor greeted Hollande and President Barack Obama upon their arrival from Washington on Air Force One.

“I met him at the airport on behalf of the city of Charlottesville,” Satyendra Singh told SikhNN. The meeting was too brief to exchange anything but a few pleasantries. The mayor also greeted Obama, who had come to Charlottesville on a previous occasion when Satyendra Singh also welcomed him.

“He is very cordial and good to talk to,” the mayor said of Obama. “We are happy to have him.”

The two presidents embarked on a tour of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate. Jefferson was a founding father and a former president. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, was a noted Francophile, and served as the minister to France from 1785 to 1789. The French honored him with a statue on the Seine River, in Paris.

After touring Monticello, the president remarked that the house, with its slave quarters, also represents the "complicated history of the United States," as well as the “complex relations” between Jefferson and the institution of slavery. For France and the United States, Monticello is “a reminder for both of us that we’re going to continue to fight on behalf of the rights of all peoples," Obama said.

But France is a violator of religious freedom, according to the United Nations.

In several rulings, including the latest in 2013, the U. N. Human Rights Committee determined that France had violated the freedom of religion of Sikhs by banning them from wearing turbans.

France passed a law, in 2004, prohibiting religious symbols in schools, including Sikh and Muslim headgear. Sikh students are not allowed to wear patkas (under-turbans) or dastaars (turbans) to school. In 2008, Bikramjit Singh, a student, filed a case against the French government’s ban on turbans in schools. He lost the case in French courts.

While the U. S. defines the freedom of religion as an all-encompassing civil right, France sees any public religious practice as a threat to religious freedom, and defines secularity as devoid of any religion.

France also requires Sikhs to remove their dastaars for driver’s license and passport photographs.

In 2008, United Sikhs, a New York-based advocacy group, filed two cases in the U. N., against France.

The first was for Shingara Singh, a French national since 1989. He was denied a driver’s license because he refused to take off his turban for the photograph.

The second was for Ranjit Singh, who was denied a French passport because he refused to take off his turban for the photograph.

On Sept. 26, the U. N. committee determined that France had failed to demonstrate that the restriction imposed on Shingara Singh was actually necessary, United Sikhs said in a news release. The restrictions result in a potential obstruction to his fundamental right to freedom of religion when he is required to appear in ID photos without the religious headwear he always wears, as he might thereafter be forced to take off his turban in public when going through ID checkpoints. The committee also noted that France had not explained why the act of wearing a turban covering only the upper portion of an individual’s head and forehead makes it more difficult to identify the wearer.

France has not responded to any of the U. N. decisions.




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