MPs from 47 countries have unanimously voted against a general ban on the wearing of the burka in public.
The Parliamentary Assembly of Europe's human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, passed a resolution warning that if governments imposed such a ban they would be denying women "who genuinely and freely desire to do so" their right to cover their faces.
But while the Assembly opposed a general ban, it left the door open for targeted laws against the burka, pointing out that legal restrictions may be justified "for security purposes, or where the public or professional functions of individuals require their religious neutrality, or that their face can be seen".
The vote came in Strasbourg amid continuing controversy in France over efforts to introduce a general burka ban.
The Muslim Council of Britain has attacked French president Nicolas Sarkozy as "patronising and offensive" after he declared: "The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity."
Belgium's lower house of parliament has already voted unanimously for such a ban. If unamended by the upper house - the Senate - the ban would be the first of its kind in Europe, introducing into Belgium's criminal code a prohibition on the wearing in public places of "clothing that hides the face".
Today's resolution, approved by national MPs representing their countries on the human rights body, acknowledged that the veiling of women is often perceived as "a symbol of the subjugation of women to men". But a general ban would impede the rights of women freely wishing to cover up.
However, the parliamentarians added: "No woman should be compelled to wear religious apparel by her community or family. Any act of oppression, sequestration or violence constitutes a crime that must be punished by law."
The resolution was part of a report on Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia, which also called on European governments to work to educate Muslim women, their families and communities on their human rights and to encourage them to take part in "public and professional life".
It also called on Switzerland to repeal as soon as possible its general ban on the construction of minarets, which it described as discriminatory.