Towers of Contention

Vatican Criticizes Swiss Ban on Minarets

‘ALARMING MISTAKE.’ People talk in front of a symbolic minaret in Geneva to protest the results of a Nov. 29 vote. The bishops of Switzerland said the country’s ban on the construction of minarets (Muslim prayer towers) represents an obstacle to interreligious harmony.
‘ALARMING MISTAKE.’ People talk in front of a symbolic minaret in Geneva to protest the results of a Nov. 29 vote. The bishops of Switzerland said the country’s ban on the construction of minarets (Muslim prayer towers) represents an obstacle to interreligious harmony. (photo: CNS photo/Valentin Flauraud, Reuters)

In a referendum on Nov. 29, 2009, the citizens of Switzerland voted by a large margin to ban construction of new minarets on mosques in the country.

The vote, approved by 57.5% of the voters and approved in 22 of the nation’s 26 cantons (states), was hailed as a success by some European ultranationalist groups but drew condemnation from, among others, the Vatican and the Swiss bishops.

Archbishop Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees, said the Vatican was “on the same page” as the Conference of Swiss Bishops. In a statement, the bishops said the referendum was an “alarming mistake” and “a serious blow to religious freedom and integration.”

They added that it not only “complicates the issue for Christians persecuted and oppressed in Islamic countries” but also “even diminishes the credibility of their efforts in those countries.” They added that the vote also represents a challenge “to inclusive dialogue and mutual respect.”

They said the campaign, initiated by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party aimed at stopping the “Islamization of Switzerland” was filled with “exaggerations and caricatures” but has shown that “peace between religions cannot be achieved by itself and must always be defended.” They also noted the challenge “of restoring necessary public trust in our legal system” and encouraging others to “work even harder to stand beside Christians living in Muslim-majority nations.”

Speaking shortly before the vote, at a Vatican press conference to launch the Pope’s Message for the World Day of Migrants, Archbishop Veglio said he couldn’t see how it was possible to prevent both the religious freedom of a minority and for a group of people who wish to have their own church. “Certainly, we notice feelings of aversion or fear a little everywhere,” he said, “but a Christian must be able to go beyond all this, even if there is no reciprocity.”

The archbishop, who has lived many years in Muslim countries, stressed that as Christians “we cannot accept the logic of exclusion. Being friends for us is not an option: If one wants to be a Catholic, one must be open to others [although] not naive.”

Many Muslim groups saw the vote as a case of Islamophobia. “The most painful thing for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote,”
Farhad Afshar, who heads the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland Muslims, told Asia News. “Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community.” Other Muslim leaders were more severe in their criticism, calling the vote a sign of hatred of the Swiss people to Muslims, while others hoped Switzerland would overturn the ban.

Far-right groups across Europe hailed the move. Roberto Calderoli, of Italy’s Northern League Party and a minister in the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said the vote was an example for other European countries losing touch with their Christian identities.

‘‘Respect for other religions is important, but we’ve got to put the brakes on Muslim propaganda, or else we’ll end up with an Islamic political party like they have in Spain,’’ he told reporters Nov. 30.

The construction of minarets has been subject to legal and political controversy in Switzerland since 2005 when a Turkish cultural association in a small Swiss municipality requested planning permission to build a 20-foot-high minaret on top of its Islamic community center. A group, including the Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, launched a federal “popular initiative” in 2007 that sought a constitutional ban on minarets.

The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano drew attention to the “flawed principle” behind the vote, observing that the referendum was based on the same mistaken value as the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights against crucifixes in Italian classrooms: that religion should be private. (Ironically, after the vote, the court received appeals against the ban on new minarets, including one from a prominent Muslim in Geneva).

It was also reported in early January that even Jewish Israelis oppose such a ban. According to a poll reported in The Jerusalem Post Jan. 11, opposition to the restriction was highest among traditional and haredi (ultraorthodox) Jews. The respondents opposed such a measure by 43% to 28%, with 29% undecided.

But the veteran Catholic author and Vatican observer Vittorio Messori believes the vote could be used to the good. Writing in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera Nov. 30, he said he believed it would help Europe to rediscover its civilization and culture, and prompt Europeans to abandon what Joseph Ratzinger once called “the inexplicable self-hatred that has long characterized the West.”

Benjamin Harnwell, chairman of the Institute for Human Dignity, a Brussels-based think tank, stressed it was important to remember that the Swiss are notoriously conservative about the aesthetics of their buildings and have some of the strictest laws on this in the world.

“It is quite fair for the architecturally conservative Swiss to oppose minarets on aesthetic grounds without immediately being labelled ‘Islamophobic,’” he said.

However, there is a real fear, also in the Vatican, that far-right political parties will continue to successfully exploit anxieties over increasing numbers of Muslims on the Continent and fill a vacuum that should be filled by a robust Christian culture. There is also the strange paradox that the same political affiliations associated with secularism that supported the ruling on crucifixes in Italy also backed Muslims having minarets in Switzerland.

“I would guess that this schizophrenia on behalf of the political elites is recognized by the people of Switzerland and is, in part, a consideration that gave the recent referendum to ban minarets the necessary double majority,” said Harnwell. “I think if our political leadership were a little more confident in affirming Christianity in the public sphere, we might as a European culture be a little more confident towards those from religious minorities in our midst.”
Harnwell added: “Unless the former changes, I doubt that the latter will.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.