Swiss Voters Approve Ban On Minarets

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In Switzerland on Sunday, voters approved a ban on the construction of minarets, the towers attached to mosques that broadcast the call to prayer.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

Today in Switzerland, voters approved a ban on the construction of minarets at mosques across the country. This was not just an architectural issue. It was a referendum sponsored by the far-right Swiss People's Party.

Eleanor Beardsley visited Switzerland and has the story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: A new article will soon be inscribed in the Swiss constitution, banning the construction of minarets, the slender towers attached to a mosque that usually broadcast the call to prayer. Of the 200 mosques in Switzerland, only four have minarets. And out of respect for surrounding neighborhoods, they don't even broadcast the call to prayer, but that didn't seem to matter to voters.

Hafid Ouardiri is head of a Muslim interfaith community organization in Geneva.

Mr. HAFID OUARDIRI (Spokesman, Islamic Cultural Center): This is a shock for us because we was not expecting this kind of (unintelligible) can happen in Switzerland. They are thinking about minarets. But in reality, they are fighting against our life here and our faith.

BEARDSLEY: Switzerland's 400,000 Muslims are mostly from Europe, not the Middle East. Ouardiri says the vast majority try to integrate and consider themselves good citizens. But now, he says, they feel like orphans.

The Swiss People's Party, which sponsored the initiative, called minarets a sign of a politically aggressive Islam. In a scare campaign, the party papered the country in posters, showing a sinister-looking woman clad in a black burqa with dozens of minarets shaped like missiles dotting a Swiss flag behind her.

Swiss People's Party leader Oskar Freysinger says the Swiss don't want Muslims with an Islamic political agenda.

Mr. OSKAR FREYSINGER (Swiss People's Party): It's a very strong sign of the civil society who says to Islam: You can come here, but in our country, religion is something of the private sphere. It's something individual.

BEARDSLEY: More than 57 percent of the population voted for the ban after a month-long campaign that stirred up xenophobic sentiments and fears of radical Islam. Over the weekend, a Christmas market was in full swing in the tiny Swiss town of Langenthal. The anti-minaret campaign got its start here and in two other towns. Langenthal native Esther Schunmann(ph) voted for the ban.

Ms. ESTHER SCHUNMANN: I like the people coming from other countries, but not the special ones who want to build minarets.

BEARDSLEY: The Swiss government is trying to assure the country's Muslim minority that the ban on minarets is not a rejection of their community, religion or culture. Many also fear the ban could damage the country's tourism and export industries and Switzerland's image abroad.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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