OTTAWA (Reuters) - A legislator with Canada's governing Conservatives apologized on Tuesday for saying Muslim women who do not want to remove their face-coverings when taking the citizenship oath should "stay the hell where (they) came from."It was the second embarrassing backtrack this month by the ruling Conservatives as they gear up for an October election that they have signaled they will center around the economy and the fight against what they call "jihadist terrorism."
The incident occurred on Monday when Conservative Member of Parliament Larry Miller spoke out against a woman who is fighting in court for the right to wear her niqab, at her citizenship ceremony.
"Frankly, if you're not willing to show your face in a ceremony that you're joining the best country in the world, then frankly, if you don't like that or don't want to do that, stay the hell where you came from," he said.
"That's maybe saying it a little harshly, but that's the way I feel."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spoken strongly against using the niqab in citizenship ceremonies, but Miller apologized after being in contact with the prime minister's office.
"I stand by my view that anyone being sworn in as a new citizen of our country must uncover their face. However, I apologize for and retract my comments that went beyond this," he stated.
Zunera Ishaq, at the heart of the controversy, said in the Toronto Star newspaper that she willingly takes off her niqab, a veil that covers most of the face, for security and identity, including before the oath ceremony.
"I will not take my niqab off at that same ceremony for the sole reason that someone else doesn't like it, even if that person happens to be Stephen Harper," she wrote.
The government is appealing a Federal Court decision last month that Ishaq, a Pakistani woman, could wear the niqab during the ceremony. The court ruled that forcing candidates to remove face-coverings when taking the citizenship oath violated the law's provision for the "greatest possible freedom" in the ceremony.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims said Miller's remarks followed "a sadly unsurprising pattern of inflammatory rhetoric from the government seemingly designed to keep the electorate focused on identity politics in order to distract them from broader issues in an election year."
Earlier this month Conservative MP John Williamson retracted complaints he voiced about how a federal program enabled "whities" to stay home while "brown people" come in as temporary foreign workers.
Gerald Butts, adviser to opposition Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, said on Twitter Harper "has done zero to condemn this behavior. His silence condones it."
Harper spokesman Carl Vallee noted Miller "made inappropriate comments that went beyond our clear position, and he has apologized for that."
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Alan Crosby