French Hostages: End Head Scarf Ban

Two French journalists held hostage by Islamic militants in Iraq appealed late Monday for their countrymen and president to save their lives by giving in to their captors' demand to rescind a ban on Muslim head scarves (search) in French schools.

A video of the reporters was broadcast by Al-Jazeera television hours after France insisted it would go ahead with the ban when schools open Thursday.

"I appeal to the French people to go to the streets ... because our lives are threatened," journalist Georges Malbrunot said in English on the video. Speaking in French, fellow hostage Christian Chesnot called on French President Jacques Chirac (search) and his government to drop the ban, according to the Al-Jazeera newsreader, who interpreted his remarks into Arabic.

The two unshaven men, who had gone missing Aug. 19, sat together in front of a gray, mud wall with a small window above them.

In a video broadcast Saturday, a militant group calling itself "The Islam Army in Iraq," gave the French government 48 hours to overturn the ban, but mentioned no threat against the men's lives. However, a militant group with a similar name was believed to have killed an Italian freelance journalist last week after Italy's government rejected a demand that it withdraw its 3,000 soldiers in Iraq (search).

Al-Jazeera said the group holding the two Frenchmen had extended its deadline by 24 hours, to late Tuesday.

There was no immediate reaction from France's government, but earlier Monday it was unequivocal about keeping the ban. "The law will be applied," spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said.

While the law bans all "conspicuous" religious apparel, such as Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, it is aimed at Muslim head scarves in public schools. Many French fear their secular nation, which has the biggest Islamic population in western Europe with 5 million Muslims, is under threat from a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.

The kidnappers called the ban "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms." But Muslim leaders at home and abroad rallied around France with statements of support and calls for the two reporters to be let go.

The men's plight has been a shock to many in France, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has pursued generally pro-Arab policies.

"The French have discovered that having opposed the Iraq war does not make them immune from the wrath of Islamists," said Bruno Tertrais at the Foundation for Strategic Research.

"It didn't take an Islamic world specialist to know that we could be a target because of this law," he said.

The measure's passage in March triggered protests by Muslims, as well as turban-wearing Sikhs, around the world, who argued it is discriminatory.

But Muslim activists in the Middle East appealed to the hostage-takers Monday and offered praise for France's anti-war stance on Iraq.

"Because of France's distinguished position in rejecting the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, we appeal to the people who kidnapped the journalists to spare their lives," said the Islamic Action Front, Jordan's largest opposition group.

Al-Jazeera, an Arabic language satellite TV station popular across the Middle East, broadcast a string of criticism of the kidnapping from government officials, activists and religious figures, including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Lebanon's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

In a statement issued by the Palestinian news agency WAFA, Arafat urged the journalists' "immediate release," calling France a friend of the Palestinian cause. Egypt's largest Islamic opposition group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, also condemned the hostage taking.

Support for the reporters came from inside Iraq, too.

"We ... condemn this abduction and any other abduction because of our religion and holy Quran verses advising us to fight those who fought us, and not to assault those who did not fight," said Sheik Ahmed al-Samara'ei, an official with the Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni group presumed to have links to insurgents.

In Lebanon, Fadlallah renewed his religious edict against the kidnapping of foreigners and called for the release of the two French reporters. "The kidnapping [of foreigners] runs contrary to the Quranic Islamic principles," he said in his edict, faxed to The Associated Press.

After arriving in Egypt to lead diplomatic efforts to free the journalists, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier called the demand to drop the French law "incomprehensible."

However, there were signs of anger when it was passed, including an ominous message for France six months ago from the top lieutenant of Usama bin Laden. An audiotape with a voice attributed to Ayman al-Zawahri, aired Feb. 24 on Al-Arabiya television, said the law on head scarves "is another example of the Crusader's malice which Westerners have against Muslims."

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said the hostage crisis showed France cannot escape terrorists with a passive Iraq policy.

"France will not be spared," Allawi said. "Governments that decide to remain on the defensive will be the next targets of terrorists."

The French Foreign Ministry called Allawi's comments "unacceptable."

Iraq was not really the issue, said Tertrais at the Foundation for Strategic Research.

While France stayed out of Iraq, it plays a leading role in fighting terrorist groups by sharing intelligence with other nations and it has hundreds of special forces soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

"Had France taken a different stance on Iraq, Islamists would have had two reasons to target France," Tertrais said.