The burkini swimsuit is banned until 31 August in various French cities Getty

A top Italian bishop has criticised France's "war on symbols" following a ban on burkinis. Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the secretary general of the Italian bishops' conference, criticised the "fear around Islamic clothing" which is being "exploited for political ends."

As of Thursday (18 August), the burkini had already been banned by five French mayors who had variously labelled it a threat to public order, unacceptable for hygiene reasons and contrary to "good morals and secularism." Galantino said everyone has the right to reflect their faith in the way they dressed and called for "common sense" to be applied.

"It is difficult to imagine that a woman who is entering into the water is about to carry out an attack," he told Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera. "We must learn to live together and this means being aware of the symbols of other cultures and accepting them when they do not impinge on our safety," he added.

Earlier this week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls waded into the row, saying "it is not compatible with the values of France," which is a secular country. Valls added that the full-body swimsuit is based on the "enslavement of women."

Galantino disagreed, saying: "I find it hard to understand France and this war on symbols – I would rather not enter into the logic of their lay thinking." He added: "above all when it justifies the derision and the vulgar ridiculing of the religious sensitivity of others."

Referring to the veil, the Catholic bishop said he was merely echoing Pope Francis' views. "I think of our nuns, I think of [Italian] peasant mothers who wore them until recently, and some still do," he said.

The burkini ban is in place until 31 August and those who flout the prohibition will be fined €38 (£32, $43). A 2011 law bans women from wearing a full, face-covering veil in public, but it does not apply to burkinis, meaning that the swimwear is not actually illegal. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has called the ban "illegal, discriminatory and unconstitutional".