Of Churches and Swiss Minarets - by Mark D. Tooley

Did the Swiss suppress religious freedom or send a pointed message to Islamists?

Switzerland Minaret Ban

The startling resolve of Swiss voters to constitutionally ban new Islamic minarets was widely condemned by Swiss church groups, some of which had opposed placing the issue before Swiss voters at all.

"The Lutheran World Federation [LWF] regrets that some sectors of Swiss society and politics found it necessary to take the issue of the construction of minarets in Switzerland to a referendum, and to force a decision for or against a ban," LWF chief Ishmael Noko complained to Ecumenical News International (ENI).  The Swiss-based LWF professes to represent nearly 70 million Lutherans globally, though its slant is always toward left-leaning and imploding European Protestantism.  ENI is the news service of the Swiss-based World Council of Churches (WCC), which has not yet but almost certainly will condemn Swiss voters.

Swiss-based church and ecumenical officials berated the anti-minaret referendum.  Some reluctantly acknowledged that Christians often have difficult building churches in Islamist-ruled nations or, as in Saudi Arabia , face outright bans.  But these protesting church officials insisted Switzerland ’s history of religious tolerance should not react against or replicate religious intolerance elsewhere.

This backhanded admission by some Swiss church officials that Christians and other religious minorities face restrictions, and sometimes lethal prohibitions, under Islamist regimes was at least ironically refreshing.  Groups like the LWF, the WCC, and the Swiss-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches are typically silent about persecution of Christians under Marxism and Islamism.  Instead, they prefer to mouth the leftist, anti-Western, anti-capitalist mantras of United Nations and European Community elites.  For professional ecumenical bureaucrats, promoting Global Warming alarmism, opposing U.S. foreign policy, condemning Israel , and berating free trade are far more important priorities than breathing a public word about persecuted Christians.

But the professional Euro-ecumenists, though largely unconcerned about their fellow religionists who suffer under Marxism and Islam, are often quick to defend Islam’s prerogatives. Lutheranism’s Ngo worried that the Swiss vote “undermines efforts at inter-religious understanding and harmony in Switzerland , and the Swiss reputation and heritage of tolerance and hospitality." He also worried that the ban on new minarets was framed in “explicitly sectarian terms vis-a-vis Muslims.”

Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches chief Thomas Wipf also had condemned the very idea of Swiss voting on minarets. “Such questions should be discussed openly but the referendum initiative is counterproductive as it hinders dialogue rather than promoting it," he told a news conference earlier this Fall with Swiss government officials and other cultural elites who were adament in their opposition. “This campaign against minarets is dangerous because it assumes that different religions cannot live together, that they have to fight each other. But we have to get closer,” he likewise explained.  “We have to learn to talk to each other. This is the real challenge!”

During the Swiss campaign Wipf defensively referenced Islamist mistreatment of religious minorities.  “Even if some Muslim states deprive their Christian citizens of their religious rights, that does not justify Switzerland persecuting its Muslim citizens because we should never answer one injustice with another injustice."  He affirmed: "We are strongly in favor of enabling Muslims to worship in freedom and dignity, and if minarets are a requirement of their religion we call on them to explain that to Swiss public opinion.”  Motivated perhaps not just by religious freedom concerns but also more banal European multiculturalism, Wipf insisted:  "Cultural diversity is a characteristic of Swiss identity. It makes Switzerland strong."

Wipf additionally heads the multi-faith Swiss Council of Religions, which similarly opposed the minaret referendum.  "For the members of a religious community, religious buildings are not only places to gather but also a symbol of their faith and an expression of their reverence for God. For many Muslims, therefore, mosques need to have minarets," insisted this council, on behalf of Christian, Jewish and Muslim officials in Switzerland .  “The prohibition of minarets would injure these people in their dignity and their basic right to practice their religion," further warned the clerics, who evidently were so distressed that their defense of minarets was their first such joint statement about any Swiss national referendum.

Minaret ban advocates asserted that mosque construction and other Islamic expression would be unaffected by the prohibition, which was specifically targeted against what they viewed specifically as the aesthetic and cultural intrusiveness of towering minarets.  But the interfaith council blasted away at the ban with an over 2500 word manifesto called “For Religious Coexistence in Peace and Freedom.”

“The Swiss Council of Religions supports integration instead of exclusion, as every human being is a divine creation from the point of view of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” their manifesto opened.   It insisted that “working for religious freedom in Switzerland and against restrictions on religious freedom in other countries [is] closely connected.”  It also surmised that “those who demand religious freedom for their own coreligionists in minority situations must not, when in the majority, deprive other minorities of the same rights. Supporting religious freedom must be a common concern for all religious communities – both here and throughout the entire world.”

What “other countries” did the interfaith council have in mind for concerns about religious freedom?  It did not say.  But intriguingly, the council did directly ask:  “Is Islam more than just a religion? What significance do human rights, democracy and rule of law, and the equality of men and women have from a Muslim point of view? Does Islam seek the status of an exception in Switzerland due to its religious precepts?”  The council offered no answers.  But the questions indicate that at least some Swiss religious officials have sublimated concerns that Islam’s ultimate role in Switzerland may be significantly different from traditional Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism.

The common inability of European secular and religious elites to address the potential threats of Islamist growth almost certainly fueled Swiss fears.  Rather than pointing fingers at Swiss voters, Swiss and ecumenical church officials might better examine their own failures.