"Freedom of religion is of utmost importance"

The speaker of the House of Representatives, Christine Egerszegi, says the debate about banning minarets is a chance to launch a dialogue with Swiss Muslims.

This content was published on July 23, 2007 - 10:58

The following is an abridged version of a recent speech Egerszegi gave at the Kuwaiti embassy in Bern at a meeting of ambassadors from Muslim countries.

Dear Mr Ambassador Kandari,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear colleagues,

First of all I would like to express my gratitude to our host, his Excellency the Ambassador of Kuwait. He has initiated this meeting and he has invited us today for this dinner. Mr Ambassador, I fully and wholeheartedly support your remarks on the "importance of dialogue".

Personal contact and dialogue is a precondition for building up understanding and trust and consequently for a peaceful coexistence between different cultures.

Globalisation has brought us into much closer contact with each other. Most of your countries maintain excellent economic relations with Switzerland. Yet globalisation is not just an economic project. It has brought different cultures, traditions and systems of values much closer together.

Switzerland itself is a country made up of different cultures and religions – and it has had to learn how to co-exist peacefully in its small territory. It has had to overcome divergences of denomination, language and economic interests in order to create national unity. Our history has been marked by violent confrontations between members of different denominations.

These confrontations ended a century and a half ago, thanks largely to a common determination to concentrate on ideas uniting the different communities in practice, rather than focussing on those setting them apart in theory.

Basic rights

Based on these experiences and historical lessons in Switzerland we are well aware that integration is quite different from assimilation. Minorities do have a right to keep their own culture and continue to uphold their traditions. Cultural diversity is potentially an enormous asset for any society.

However, such a right can only function well in a two-way-system. Respect and understanding for the culture and the values of their surrounding is needed as well from the side of minorities and migrants. It is first and foremost their noble duty to strive for integration while being careful at the same time not to loose their own cultural roots.

Tolerance and understanding for different ways of life, different mentalities, cultural values and traditions are needed to a very large extent. Yet at the same time there are certain fundamental values and achievements which are non-negotiable, which have to be respected and shared by each and everyone wishing to live in this country.

These fundamental values include the universally agreed human rights, equal rights for all human beings – including women and men - , the respect for the rule of law and democracy – as well as the respect for the freedom rights and duties of each individual citizen living in our secular state.

This basic set of rights and fundamental values as granted by our constitution have to be respected in all spheres of life. Religious and cultural traditions may never stand above binding law.

Physical and mental inviolability as well as equal rights for women and men have to be respected in the public as well as in private life.

Religious freedom, however, is indeed itself a core part of the universally agreed human rights.

Freedom of Religion

The Universal declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations states in article 18: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his or her choice."

In the Swiss constitution Article 15 guarantees the "Freedom of Religion and Philosophy". It includes the right to choose one's religion or philosophical convictions freely, and to profess them alone or in community with others.

There cannot be one single right, however, which is unlimited and unrestricted in its claim. It always has to be exercised in the context and in balance with other fundamental rights as I have mentioned them before.

Freedom of religion is a value of utmost importance for our country. Even if Switzerland is rooted in Christian traditions we uphold the principal of a clear separation between church and state.

There is no state religion and we strongly disapprove of exploiting religion for political purposes. The constitution and the provisions of (secular) law apply for everyone in this country and stand above religious practice – if ever they should conflict with each other.

Minaret ban

In order to resolve conflicts and problems we should rely on legal proceedings only as a last resort. It should always be our aim and our ambition to find solutions through dialogue.

Allow me at this occasion to make a few remarks about an issue which may be of some concern for all of us here:

You may be aware of the new people's initiative under preparation which is asking for a ban for the construction of minarets in Switzerland. As you know, Swiss citizens have the right to propose new legislation by launching an initiative.

We are indeed proud of this political instrument which allows the citizens of our country to participate actively and directly in forming political decisions. If they manage to gather 100,000 signatures in support of a proposal, it must be put to a nationwide vote.

Obviously this new initiative I just mentioned is touching a delicate issue, which most likely will bring about intensive debates in the months and years to come.

I will not enter here into a legal debate nor make any personal judgments about the content of this initiative. Let me just note in very general terms that obviously some real concern and anxiety in our population has given rise to this project.

Concern and anxiety often are caused by a lack of information, a lack of direct exchange and mutual understanding. In this sense I think we all should take this initiative as a chance to enter into a more intensive dialogue.

Appeal for dialogue

Muslim communities should intensify their efforts to integrate into Swiss society – without giving up their own culture – and thereby building up trust, which is vital for reducing existing anxieties.

The debate about this initiative has hardly begun, but it may have the potential to become heated. Let us never forget in such moments the appeal of the Ambassador of Kuwait on the importance of dialogue.

We should never allow the dialogue between us to suffer or even risk to be suffocated by emotions which may be stirred up in such a debate. The prerequisite for finding lasting solutions is the respect for difference, and the conviction that every latent conflict can be resolved by dialogue.

Democratic consultation, strong measures to protect minorities, and the constant effort to achieve compromise – these were the most important instruments for the construction of this country. They may be helpful as well to face new challenges, as they will unavoidably arise in the coexistence between different cultures, religions and traditions.

I apologise if my speech has been too extensive and too serious.
After all we meet here today – most of us for the first time – in order to spend a pleasant evening together, to enjoy this dinner as well as the friendly conversation with our neighbours at table.

Let me therefore conclude my remarks by thanking once again Ambassador Kandari for his precious initiative and his generous invitation.

I raise my glass on the peaceful coexistence and dialogue between different cultures and religions – as well as between members of different political parties.

Thank you for your attention!

Christine Egerszegi

In brief

The 59-year-old Christine Egerszegi is a member of the centre-right Radical Party and this year's speaker of the House of Representatives.

She addressed a gathering of ambassadors and representatives of Arab and Islamic states at the Kuwaiti embassy in Bern on June 12, 2007.

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Key facts

About 77% of the Swiss profess to belong to either the Roman Catholic church or a Protestant denomination.
Islam represents the largest group of non-Christians, accounting for more than 4% of the population.

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