Swiss Ban on Minarets Violates Religious Freedom

Swiss Ban on Minarets Violates Religious Freedom

Klaus Rösler - December 03, 2009

Prague/Bern – In a Swiss referendum on 29 November, the majority voted for a ban on the construction of new minarets. Evangelical circles in Switzerland and beyond expressed grave concern regarding the decision, which they regard as a violation of religious freedom. 57,5% of the voters had approved of an initiative launched by the Swiss People’s Party (Schweizer Volkspartei, SVP) and the Swiss Federal Union (Eidgenössische Union, EDU).

Peck: „surprised and disappointed“
In a response, Tony Peck (Prague), the General-Secretary of the European Baptist Federation (EBF), described himself as „surprised and dismayed“ by the outcome. Banning a minaret “strikes at the heart of religious tolerance, which I thought the Swiss nation valued very highly”. According to Peck, this outcome also contradicts Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives every person the right to express his/her faith both privately and publically. Peck expressed understanding for the fact that fear regarding the growth of radical Islam and the global movement of Islamic terrorism might have influenced the decision. Yet Switzerland has until now itself not been confronted with such problems. The question is legitimate as to how a nation intends to preserve its identity while integrating other religious groups into its society. Germany, France, Great Britain and other Western European countries are working on the same issues. Peck is nevertheless concerned that the verdict will weaken the identity of Swiss Muslims and lead to a growth of racism and religious intolerance throughout Europe. This decision will “also have some unfortunate consequences for Christians living in Islamic countries where religious freedom is often under threat”. Peck cited the Baptist founder Thomas Helwys, who already in 1612 had argued in favour of religious tolerance for all – including Muslims. Peck called on the Baptists of Switzerland to protest in the name of religious freedom against the referendum decision.

Baptist President: Sharia and forced marriage were also involved
The President of the Swiss Baptist Union, the barrister Peter Deutsch (Bern), noted that all of his country’s free churches as well as the Swiss Evangelical Alliance had spoken out against the referendum, citing a banning a minarets as “disproportionate”. Yet Deutsch conceded that efforts to allay the fears in congregations regarding the growth of Islam had not been successful. He has the impression that minarets were not the real issue of the referendum, but rather a signal against the Islamisation of societies as expressed by the Sharia and forced marriage. The verdict does infringe upon the right to religious freedom, but one must at the same time take this “signal of mass sentiment” seriously. The conflict with Libya, which has lasted for over a year, played an important role in the matter as well as the arrogant behaviour of certain Islamic groups. The referendum results are a vote of no confidence which government and Parliament must take seriously. But Deutsch also criticised the improper behaviour of some Swiss politicians when meeting representatives of Muslim institutions such as the Organisation of Islamic Countries. One should have been forthright in conversations with them and demanded religious freedom more vehemently in their countries. Deutsch expressed certainty in a conversation with the European Baptist Press Service that the referendum results will stand little chance before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Religious freedom is not determined by towers
Baptist General-Secretary Stefan Gisiger (Thalwil) stressed that Christian and Muslim freedom of religion and conscience are not determined by towers. Debates by both supporters and opponents leading up to the referendum were highly emotional and not conducive to a serious discussion on the vital issues regarding Muslims and Islam. According to Gisiger, who also serves as a pastor, this was the case even in Baptist congregations. “Swiss Christians were – and are not – of one mind on this question.” Though top-level politicians and church headquarters had recommended rejection of the imitative, many Protestants for ex. were supportive.

Alliance disappointed by Muslim organisations
The Swiss Evangelical Alliance expressed disappointment regarding the results. Its statement maintains that the decision makes constructive solutions more difficult than ever. According to its Secretary, Hansjörg Leutwyler (Zurich), the initiative gave no answers to important, basic questions involving daily life together with Muslims – for ex. Sharia and forced marriage. The results also weaken the position of persecuted Christians in Islamic countries. Swiss credibility on issues of human rights has not been strengthened. But the Alliance also expressed its disappointment regarding the country’s Muslim organisations. They had neglected posting clear signals in favour of harmonious co-existence and failed to dampen mass fear regarding a politicised Islam. A Swiss association of free churches represents 600 congregations with a total of 150.000 members and friends. The Swiss Baptist Union consists of 10 cngregations with 1.200 members.