BY ED WEST
THE VATICAN has joined Muslim leaders around the world in condemning Switzerland’s referendum banning the building of minarets, calling it a blow to religious freedom.
In the referendum on Sunday more than 57.5 per cent of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons voted in favour of the ban.
The proposal was tabled by the Right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest party in parliament, which argued that minarets were a sign of Islamisation.
On Monday the Vatican backed a statement by the Swiss bishops’ conference criticising the vote for heightening “the problems of cohabitation between religions and cultures”.
The bishops had said in a statement that the referendum campaign had used exaggeration and caricature, and demonstrated that “religious peace does not operate by itself and always needs to be defended”.
“The decision of the people represents an obstacle and a great challenge on the path of integration in dialogue and mutual respect,” the bishops said.
Banning the building of minarets “increases the problems of coexistence between religions and cultures”, they said.
The bishops said the vote “will not help the Christians oppressed and persecuted in Islamic countries, but will weaken the credibility of their commitment in these countries”.
Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, described the ban as an insult to the feelings of the Muslim community in Switzerland and elsewhere.
Bernard Kouchner, French foreign minister, said the ban showed “intolerance” and should be reversed, while Amnesty International said the vote violated freedom of religion.
The Swiss government had opposed the ban, saying it would harm Switzerland’s image, particularly in the Muslim world, while the Catholic bishops’ conference in Switzerland had months ago issued a statement warning that “fear is a poor counsellor”. But voters worried about immigration, especially the increasing size of the country’s Muslim population, which now numbers five per cent, or 400,000 people, ignored them.
Only in one German and three French-speaking cantons, which have large immigrant populations, both Catholic and Muslim, did a majority reject the controversial proposal.
Switzerland has 200 mosques but just four of them have minarets, and they will not be affected, while planning permis sion for minarets is routinely refused. Supporters of a ban claimed the minarets represented the growth of “an ideology and a legal system – sharia law – which are incompatible with Swiss democracy”, according to the SVP.
But opponents said the referendum incited hatred, with Geneva’s mosque being vandalised three times.
Tamir Hadjipolu, the president of Zurich’s Association of Muslim Organisations, told the BBC: “This will cause major problems because during this campaign mosques were at tacked, which we never experienced in 40 years in Switzerland.” The Vatican’s condemnation was backed by Auxiliary Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, also a member of the Holy Land Coordination Group, who said: “I would definitely agree with the Vatican and I seriously agree with the concept of freedom of religion, and if that is the case then Muslims should be allowed their places to worship.” But he said the minaret ban would not necessarily lead to increasing anti-Muslim hostility across Europe and Britain. “I don’t think it’s going to have an effect here,” said Bishop Kenney. “Here in Birmingham at least we have very good relations with the Muslim community.” But Bishop Kenney agreed with many commentators that the vote could be an opportunity to debate the status of churches in Muslim countries, which suffer various levels of persecution.
“I agree that reciprocity should exist, but two wrongs do not make a right,” he said. “That doesn’t give us the right to do the same. With suitable opportunity I speak to Muslim friends about this, it is an issue that I raise.” Bruce Kent, vice-president of Pax Christi, said he was “dismayed” by the outcome of the vote.
“As a Christian, I live in an area where we have a beautiful mosque and minaret which cause no offence to anybody and contributes to the beauty of the environment,” said Mr Kent, in reference to the Finsbury Park mosque in north London.
In 1995 the Vatican supported the construction of Europe’s largest mosque, in Rome, which included a 66ft dome and a minaret, despite opposition from Italian nationalists.
Muslims had originally suggested building a mosque back in the 1930s but Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had agreed only on condition that a Catholic church could be built in Mecca.
When a request was made in 1973 Pope Paul VI gave his support. The mosque was constructed with Saudi Arabian government money, and on the day it was opened Pope John Paul II sent a message of congratulations, but also insisted on “reciprocity” – the principle that Christians and other religious minorities in Islamic nations ought to have the same freedoms as Muslims now enjoy in the West.
Pope John Paul II said at the time: “In being happy that the Muslims may come together in prayer in the new mosque of Rome, I also express the lively hope that the right to express their own faith will be recognised for Christians and all believers in every corner of the world.” The Swiss vote is the latest sign of growing popular discontent with the rise of Islam in western Europe, with anti-Islamic parties making gains in the European elections in June.
According to the US National Intelligence Council, the Muslim population in the EU region rose from five million in 1985 to 15 million in 2005, and will reach 28 million in 2025.
France is almost 10 per cent Muslim, but the proportion among those of school age is far higher.
Under the rules governing Switzerland the government must now amend the constitution to alter the sentence dealing with church-state relations to add “the building of minarets in Switzerland is forbidden”.
But the ban may be in breach of the European convention on human rights and the UN charter proscribing discrimination on religious grounds, and the case could end up in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.