Swiss minaret ban draws worldwide criticism
Paris -- A decision by Swiss voters to ban the building of minarets drew widespread criticism on Monday, with neighbouring governments attacking what they called a demonstration of fear-driven prejudice.
"It’s an expression of quite a bit of prejudice and maybe even fear," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country currently holds the European Union presidency.
"It is clear that it is a negative signal in every way, there’s no doubt about it," he told Swedish Radio.
Bernard Kouchner, foreign minister of Switzerland’s immediate neighbour France, was equally damning in his condemnation of the result.
"I am a bit shocked by this decision," Kouchner told RTL radio. "It is an expression of intolerance."
"I hope the Swiss will reverse this decision quickly," he added.
Lawmakers at the Council of Europe, a 47-member human rights watchdog that Switzerland currently chairs, issued a statement expressing its concern at the result.
"Although it expresses the popular will, the decision to ban the construction of new minarets in Switzerland is a source of profound concern," said Lluis Maria de Puig, the president of the body’s parliamentary assembly.
"The result of this referendum goes against the values of tolerance, dialogue and respect for other people’s beliefs," he added.
In Italy, government and religious officials also attacked the result.
Foreign Affairs Minister Franco Frattini expressed the Italian government’s "concern,” while the Vatican also slammed the move, endorsing earlier criticism by a group of Swiss bishops who said it was a blow to religious freedom.
Antonio Maria Sveglio, president of the pontifical council on migration, told the ANSA news agency that "we are on the same page" as the Conference of Swiss Bishops.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Christoph Steegmans declined to comment on the result, telling AFP that Berlin was not "going to give advice to Switzerland."
He added that the government was certain that "freedom of religion is as important in Switzerland as it is here."
Some 57.5 percent of those who cast their ballot voted in favour of banning the building of minarets which are attached to mosques and use for the traditional call to prayer, amid a turnout of 53 percent.
Not all reactions were critical. Dutch Member of Parliament Geert Wilders, who leads the far-right Party for Freedom, called the result "wonderful" and asked for a similar referendum to be held in the Netherlands.
"What is possible in Switzerland should be possible here," he said in a statement on the web site of his party, which holds nine of the 150 seats in the lower house of parliament.
Members of the hard right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) — Switzerland’s biggest party — and other right wing groups brought the ‘people’s initiative’ referendum after petitioning 100,000 signatures from eligible voters.
In neighbouring Austria, Interior Minister Maria Fekter said the government would "look at" the Swiss ban, but stressed that "freedom of religion is anchored in the (Austrian) constitution."
But Austrian media were united in their attack of the Swiss ban.
The Der Standard daily described the vote as the "ugly face of direct democracy,” while the Die Presse newspaper said Swiss voters had done a "disservice" to their country.
Sunday’s result has also sparked anger in the Muslim world with religious groups in Pakistan attacking the referendum as "extreme Islamophobia."
"This development reflects extreme Islamophobia among people in the West," said Khurshid Ahmad, vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami, a hardline Islamic political party in Pakistan’s parliament.
Maskuri Abdillah, head of Indonesia’s biggest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, said that the vote reflected "a hatred of Swiss people against Muslim communities.”
Egypt’s Mufti Ali Gomaa, the Egyptian government’s official interpreter of Islamic law, denounced the minaret ban as an "insult" to Muslims across the world and "an attack on freedom of beliefs."
Muslims account for just five percent of Switzerland’s population of 7.5 million people, and form the third largest religion group after the dominant Roman Catholic and Protestant communities, although just 50,000 are estimated to openly worship.
The constitutional amendment only bans the construction of minarets, and has no impact on mosques or the freedom of religious worship.
Switzerland has just four minarets, which are not allowed to broadcast the call to prayer, as well as some 200 mosques, according to official sources.