By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi
ZURICH (Reuters) - A school's decision to allow two Muslim pupils not to shake their teachers' hands has added fresh fuel to an ongoing debate in Switzerland about integration of immigrants.
When the 14- and 15-year-old brothers refused to shake female teachers' hands last November, citing their religious beliefs, the school in Therwil near Basel replaced the customary greeting with a verbal one from the boys to both male and female teachers.
The compromise solved the issue at the school, but when the public broadcaster SRF reported on it last week, it tapped into a groundswell of concern about immigration that is being felt all over Europe.
The Egerkinger Committee, a lobby group that succeeded through a referendum in 2009 in banning minarets, and wants to do the same for Muslim face veils, has called for immigrants shunning Swiss customs to be shown the door.
"Those refusing integration should not have their residence permits renewed," the committee wrote.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told SRF the schoolboys' action was not how she imagined integration.
"We cannot accept this, even in the name of religious freedom," she said. "The handshake is part of our culture."
Sommaruga, who has championed migrants' rights and pushed through legislation to handle asylum requests better, stands with other liberals who say women's rights are at stake along with Swiss customs.
Muslim community representatives have so far taken a conciliatory line.
Montassar Benmrad, president of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, cited the Islamic principle of respecting others and avoiding unnecessary embarrassment.
"It's important that the Muslim students concerned show respect towards the teachers that educate them year-round," Benmrad said on the organisation's website.
Some rights groups also note that an increasing number of Israeli El Al flights have been delayed by ultra-Orthodox Jewish male passengers asking not to have women seated next to them - an issue that has led one female 81-year-old Holocaust survivor to sue the airline for discrimination after being asked to move to another seat.
Benmrad warned against responding too hastily to cultural differences.
"From experience, it's more efficient and productive to solve such issues through constructive dialogue rather than in confrontation," he said.
(Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)