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PARIS (Reuters) - Muslim pupils and parents in France are increasingly making religious demands on the state school system that teachers should rebuff by explaining the country's secular principles, according to an official report.
The High Council for Integration (HCI) reported growing problems with pupils of immigrant backgrounds who object to courses about the Holocaust, the Crusades or evolution, demand halal meals and "reject French culture and its values."
"It is becoming difficult for teachers to resist religious pressures," said the report, published in draft form by the newspaper Journal du Dimanche over the weekend. The final report will be presented to the government next month.
"We should now reaffirm secularism and train teachers how to deal with specific problems linked to the respect for this principle," it said.
France's strict separation of church and state relegates religion to the private sphere, an approach challenged by a growing Islamic identity among some of the five million Muslims in the country's 65 million population.
HCI President Patrick Gaubert told the newspaper his agency decided to study how pupils from immigrant backgrounds adapted to the state school system because "this is at the heart of the challenges that French society must face."
The report, which studied a wide range of issues faced by pupils of immigrant backgrounds, gave no figures for the extent of problems linked to religion but said they came up so often in the hearings the HCI conducted that they merited attention.
Teachers often faced objections when they taught courses about world religions, the Holocaust or France's war in Algeria, or discussed events related to Israel and the Palestinians or American military actions in Muslim countries, the study said.
"Teachers regularly find that Muslim parents refuse to have their children learn about Christianity," it said. "Some think it amounts to evangelisation."
"Anti-Semitism ... surfaces during courses about the Holocaust, such as inappropriate jokes and refusals to watch films" about Nazi concentration camps, it said. "Tensions often come from pupils who identify themselves as Muslims."
Teachers found they could discuss the trans-atlantic slave trade but met criticism from pupils when they brought up the history of slavery within Africa or in the Middle East.
Reflecting the promotion of anti-Darwinist thinking in Muslim countries, "evolution is challenged by pupils who posit divine or creationist action without any argument for it."
In some areas with large immigrant populations, many pupils shun school cafeterias for religious reasons, even though most offer alternative dishes when pork is on the menu.
"Demand for halal menus is strong, even for the very young in public crèches," it said. "In some cities, there are petitions for halal -- and sometimes kosher -- meals."
The report stressed the state could allow alternatives to pork but could not allow halal or kosher meals because the price for ritually slaughtered meat included a tax paid to religious organisations that certify the food was properly prepared.
"The school cannot, in this sense, participate in the religious education of its pupils or conform to principles that it does not recognise," the report said.
France allows private religious schools and the number of Jewish schools has risen in recent years. There are few Muslim schools and most parents would have difficulty paying tuition.
During Ramadan, some Muslim pupils harass others who don't observe the annual daytime fast, it said. Boys who identify themselves as Muslims and reject French values harass girls who do well in class as "collaborators" with the "dirty French."
Some girls ask to be excused from gymnasium or pool sessions because they are not supposed to mix with boys, it added.
The report said French schools must insist on co-education, equal rights and mutual respect. "Being a French citizen means accepting challenges to one's opinions ... this is the price to pay for the freedom of opinion and expression.
"Must we recall that the crime of blasphemy has not existed in France since the French Revolution?" it asked.
"The principle of secularism leads to a profound relativisation of religion. This is a philosophical upheaval that religions only consent to with difficulty," it said.
Editing by Tim Pearce