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Prime Minister Stephen. Harper argued his party’s determination to require uncovered faces for citizenship oaths is backed by “moderate” followers of Islam.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper's Conservatives find themselves on the defensive regarding their relationship with Muslim Canadians, a rare position for the governing party that has made courting ethnic communities a staple of its election strategy.

The Prime Minister, who upset some Muslim Canadians this week by saying the face-covering niqab is "rooted in a culture that is anti-woman," stood up in the Commons Wednesday to enumerate support for his government's campaign to ban the use of the veil when taking the oath of Canadian citizenship. A small minority of Muslim women wear the niqab in Canada.

He listed groups such as the Coalition of Progressive Canadian Muslim Organizations, which, Mr. Harper told the Commons, have declared: "Most Canadians believe that it is offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family."

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Mr. Harper argued his party's determination to require uncovered faces for citizenship oaths is backed by "moderate" followers of Islam. And he suggested his chief critic on the file, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, is the politician who's offside on a niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies.

"These are not the views only of the overwhelming majority of Canadians, they are the views of the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims," the Prime Minister said. "It is up to the leader of the Liberal Party to explain why he is so far outside that mainframe."

Mr. Trudeau has accused Mr. Harper of Islamophobia and using divisive comments to stir fear against Muslims – including February remarks where the Prime Minister linked radicalization with mosques while announcing a proposed new anti-terror bill.

The Liberal Leader went so far this week as to equate the government's language concerning Muslims to the anti-Semitic commentary 80 years ago that led to policies restricting Jews from Canada. "We should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a 'none is too many' immigration policy toward Jews in the thirties and forties being used today, to raise fears against Muslims today," Mr. Trudeau told a Toronto crowd earlier this week.

Defence Minister Jason Kenney, also the minister responsible for multiculturalism, took to Twitter this week to defend the Conservative record on Muslims and counter the Liberal attack, calling it "obscene to conflate the essentially public nature of the citizenship oath with an anti-Semitic bar on refugees fleeing the Holocaust."

It was Mr. Kenney who introduced the ban on veils during citizenship oaths when he was minister of immigration back in 2011. The Federal Court of Canada struck this down last month, and the Harper government has announced it is appealing that decision.

Mr. Kenney cited immigration and Statistics Canada figures to show that while 5,000 Jews were admitted to Canada under a Liberal government from 1939 to 1945, the Harper government has admitted more than 300,000 Muslim immigrants since taking power in 2006.

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"I'm proud to belong to the party that elected the first Canadian Muslim MP and has the first Sunni Muslim senator," Mr. Kenney wrote on Twitter.

Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair said both Mr. Harper and Mr. Trudeau need to tone down their language. "I think that it's the role of any politician in a country like ours to try to bring people together, to try to avoid using this type of issue to divide people," the NDP chief said.

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