The Catholic Church is one of the strongest critics of Switzerland's vote to ban the construction of new minarets on mosques, with the country's bishops decrying the ban as "a serious blow to religious freedom and integration."
The Swiss referendum Sunday, in which 57.5 percent of the voters approved the ban, sparked fierce debate that has divided the European continent over whether it represented a stand for Christian values and culture or a sign of intolerance that impinges on religious freedom.
Many political leaders, as well as Christian and Jewish groups, consider it a negative development. Others see it as a wake-up call to governments to address concerns about increasing Muslim immigration on a continent often said to be losing its Christian heritage and identity.
The Vatican said it agrees with the Swiss bishops' characterization of the vote as an “alarming mistake."
The bishops issued a statement saying the vote complicates matters for Christians who already face persecution and oppression in Islamic countries.
The vote not only undermines the chances for dialogue and mutual respect among various religions but also makes it harder for religions and culture to coexist, the bishops said.
The campaign, which the right-wing Swiss People's Party initiated to stop what it called the "Islamization of Switzerland," was filled with “exaggerations and caricatures," the bishops said.
Archbishop Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the Vatican’s Council for Migrants and Refugees, said shortly before Sunday’s referendum that feelings of aversion and fear exist everywhere. But “a Christian must be able to go beyond all this, even if there is no reciprocity,” he said.
The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano likened the Swiss vote to the European Court of Human Rights' recent ruling against crucifixes in Italian classrooms.
“'Both positions are based on the same, flawed principle that religion ought to be something we do in private,” wrote editor Giovanni Maria Vian.
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 minaret on top of its Islamic community center.
A group that included the Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union launched a federal "popular initiative" in 2007 that sought a constitutional ban on minarets. Switzerland has 150 mosques that serve 400,000 Muslims, but only four have minarets and, unlike in Islamic countries, they are not used to call Muslims to prayer.
But some groups across Europe hailed the move, in particular a number of political parties on the right, or far right.
The vote provides an example for other European countries that are losing touch with their Christian identities, said Roberto Calderoli, a member of Italy's Northern League party and a minister in the government of Silvio Berlsconi.
''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.
Switzerland's decision has emboldened nationalist leaders across Europe, with the nationalist Danish Peoples Party saying it, too, will seek a similar referendum in Denmark, where minarets have yet to appear.
Some moderate voices pointed to the underlying causes and potential positive consequences of the vote.
Writing in Corriere della Sera Nov. 30, the veteran Italian author Vittorio Messori said he believes it will help Europe rediscover its civilization and culture and prompt Europeans to abandon what Pope Benedict XVI — when he was Cardinal 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 the importance of remembering that the Swiss are notoriously conservative about the aesthetics of their buildings and have some of the strictest zoning laws in the world.
“It is quite fair for the architecturally conservative Swiss to oppose minarets on aesthetic grounds without immediately being labeled ‘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, and immigration in general. These far right groups, they believe, are filling a vacuum that has been created by decades of secularism that is usurping the continent’s Christian heritage, culture and values.
This latest development also points to a strange paradox: that the same secularist political affiliations that supported the European Court 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,” Harnwell said. “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.”
“Unless the former changes, I doubt that the latter will,” he said.
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