The law coming into force

French, Muslim and Arab leaders clung to hope on Wednesday that diplomatic efforts would save the lives of two reporters held hostage in Iraq amid uncertainty over their fate. French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, hoping to secure the Frenchmen's freedom, left Egypt for Qatar, the fourth leg of a Middle East rescue mission. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said on Tuesday he believed the deadline had been extended until Wednesday evening, contradicting other officials who thought it was due to run out late on Tuesday. There was no fresh word from the kidnappers, informs Reuter. "I think we can say the ultimatum has been delayed. That gives us some hope. It allows us to explore other channels," Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the Union of French Islamic Organizations, told Europe 1 radio. The Arab League's ambassador in Paris, Nassif Hitti, said the League believed the deadline had not expired. "That gives us more hope that there can perhaps be a positive outcome to this tragedy," he told LCI television. According to the Christian Science Monitor, muslims in and outside France have rallied to the side of French President Jacques Chirac in denouncing the terrorist hostage-takers who seek to overturn France's ban on the wearing of head scarves in public schools. "France ensures the equality, the respect, the protection of the free exercise of all religions in the framework of our communal law," Mr. Chirac stated Sunday. "This tradition, anchored in our history, is the glue of our national unity." This tendency toward tolerance plays out in France's foreign affairs - in its well-tended relationship with the Arab world, for instance, and its backing for a Palestinian state. True to the secular spirit, the new rule reflects a certain equality. It bans "conspicuous" displays of all religious symbols - including Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses - though it allows discreet symbols. But secularism has a worrisome side. It's supposed to be a unifier, but is also a divider. Behind the ban on religious fashions lurks fear of Muslim fundamentalism. The country's Muslims live largely in their own communities, and the head-scarf ban will probably push Muslim girls into private Islamic schools - further segregating society (and perhaps radicalizing more Muslims), not Frenchifying it. France may be the torchbearer of tolerance, but this year the number of anti-Semitic acts has dramatically increased. And if the tradition of tolerance is so splendidly inclusive, why is Paris so halfhearted about EU membership for mostly Muslim (though secularly ruled) Turkey? As America knows, managing ethnic, racial, and religious diversity is not easy. But European nations such as Britain and Sweden allow individual expressions of religious identity like head scarves without damaging their democracies. Europe's future lies with a diverse religious population. France must not let its religious-like secularism trample other religions.

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