British Airways on Sunday night faced criticism from prominent UK politicians and Christian clerics after it banned one of its employees from wearing a crucifix around her neck while on duty for the company.

As the UK political scene continues to be dominated by debate over whether people can express their faith through their dress, BA was inundated by demands that it reverse a ruling that a member of staff cannot openly wear a small crucifix.

Nadia Eweida, who works for the BA check-in team, claims she was effectively “forced” to take unpaid leave after she refused to remove a cross about the size of a small coin.

BA says that, under its uniform policy, employees may wear jewellery – including religious symbols – but it must be concealed underneath the uniform. However, the airline says that items such as turbans, hijabs and bangles can be worn “as it is not practical for staff to conceal them beneath their uniforms.”

BA’s decision was condemned by Peter Hain, Northern Ireland secretary, as “loopy,” adding: “I don’t understand it, I don’t think anybody understands it and that is my view.”

Ann Widdecombe, the former conservative Home Office minister and a committed Catholic, called on Christians to boycott BA services until the company reversed its decision.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is religious discrimination and I don’t think Christians have to take it,” she told BBC TV. Asked how Christians should respond, she said: “They could all write to the chief executive, but the real power will be their economic power – don’t fly BA.”

John Andrews, communications officer for the Diocese of Bath and Wells, said: “I think BA are being extremely offensive to members of the Christian faith.”

The BA row comes as ministers continue to face a backlash over a suggestion that Muslim women consider removing their veils when in public places.

Jack Straw, Commons leader, initiated a debate on veil-wearing last week when he suggested wearing a full veil over the face helped create “parallel communities”. David Davis, shadow home secretary, yesterday supported Mr Straw, warning that a form of “voluntary apartheid” was being inadvertently encouraged.

The row over religious dress came as the government said it would take measures to ensure all new faith schools set up in the UK accepted a certain number of children of other religions.

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