updated 3/25/2007 1:37:47 AM ET 2007-03-25T05:37:47

Muslim women will have to remove their face coverings if they want to vote in upcoming elections in Quebec, a government official said Friday, reversing his earlier decision to allow the veils.

Marcel Blanchet, the French-speaking province’s election chief, had been criticized by Quebec’s three main political leaders for allowing voters to wear the niqab, which covers the entire face except for the eyes, if they signed a sworn statement and showed identification when they vote.

But Blanchet reversed his earlier decision Friday, saying it was necessary to avoid disruptions when residents go to the polls.

“Relevant articles to electoral laws were modified to add the following: any person showing up at a polling station must be uncovered to exercise the right to vote,” he said.

Blanchet had to get two bodyguards after the Quebec elections office received threatening phone calls and e-mails following his initial decision to allow niqabs. He said some residents had threatened to protest Monday’s vote by showing up at polling stations wearing masks.

The reversal was condemned by Muslims groups who said it could turn their members away from the polls. “I am so saddened, I doubt many of these women will show up at the polls on Monday after all this mockery,” said Sarah Elgazzar of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Many European countries are also grappling with the issue of Muslim veils.

In Britain, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw caused a stir last year when he said he wanted Muslim women to abandon the full-face veil, while a Muslim teaching assistant in northern England was suspended from her job for refusing to remove one.

France passed a law in 2004 banning Islamic head scarves in schools, and the Netherlands has announced plans for one banning full-length veils in public places. Germany also has a law banning teachers in public schools from wearing head scarves.

Last week in Quebec, a young Muslim woman was forced to quit her job at a prison after she refused to remove her headscarf. The public security department supported the decision, citing security concerns, but Muslim groups pointed out that the Canadian Armed Forces allow women to wear headscarves on active duty.

Last month, an 11-year-old Muslim girl from Ontario participating in a soccer tournament in Quebec was pulled from the field after she refused the referee’s request to remove her headscarf.

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