A Cabinet Minister yesterday attacked the British Airways ruling banning a Christian employee from wearing a cross around her neck, branding it "loopy".

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said he "didn't understand" a decision by the airline to make check-in worker Nadia Eweida remove her necklace.

He said: "Frankly I think the British Airways order for her not to wear a cross was loopy.

"I don't understand it, I don't think anybody understands it and that is my view."

Mr Hain is the most senior politician to join the growing chorus of condemnation of BA.

Ms Eweida claims she was effectively "forced" to take unpaid leave after refusing to remove the cross, which is about the size of a five pence piece.

Meanwhile, the airline said that items such as turbans, hijabs and bangles could be worn "as it is not practical for staff to conceal them beneath their uniforms".

Miss Eweida, 55, who has been with BA for seven years, plans to sue her employer - which she considered to be "a very reputable company" - for religious discrimination.

The airline, now facing a call for Christians to boycott it, was accused of double standards.

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."

Miss Eweida said she had just undergone training on respecting and understanding other people's beliefs with BA when she was asked to remove the cross.

She sought permission to wear it from management, but this was not forthcoming.

Miss Eweida, from Twickenham, west London, wears the cross because of her deeply-held religious beliefs. She is from an Egyptian background and attends Pentecostal as well as Arabic churches.

Tory MP Ann Widdecombe warned that if BA had not reversed its "crazy" policy by tonight, she would cut up her BA executive club card and would not use the airline in future unless there was no other alternative.

Respect Party leader George Galloway said: "It is about time this hysteria was dampened down. Let people wear what they want to wear, let religions dress according to how they think their religion requires them to dress, let a thousand flowers bloom."

A BA spokeswoman emphasised that Miss Eweida has not been suspended from work.

She said an appeal was due to be heard some time next week and added that BA recognised that uniformed employees may wish to wear jewellery including religious symbols.

"Our uniform policy states that these items can be worn, underneath the uniform. There is no ban. This rule applies for all jewellery and religious symbols on chains and is not specific to the Christian cross."

The Transport and General Workers Union is supporting Miss Eweida's case.

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