A series of ads that display Bible verses, currently on display on public transport in the city of Biel in canton Bern, is stirring controversy. A local politician has posted questions about the campaign to Facebook, sparking a series of hostile reactions.
Mohamed Hamdaoui, a journalist and leftwing Social Democratic Party representative for the city of Biel and the Bern cantonal parliament, is not in the habit of staying silent. He is well known in French-speaking Switzerland for his criticisms of Islamist movements, in Switzerland and elsewhere.
And it is again with secular conviction that he questions the Bible verse ad campaign on local buses in his community, pointing to the use of a taxpayer-financed public good.
The criticisms which Hamdaoui has been subjected to in return, however, focus on his Muslim background. They were sparked by a Facebook post by the Egerkingen Committee, the group behind the successful initiative against the construction of new minarets, approved by Swiss citizens in 2009.
The committee said: “the Muslim Social Democratic city councillor wants to ban Christian ads from public spaces. Recognise the signal: this is how infiltration begins.”
The committee later retracted its post and presented its apologies to Hamdaoui. As he confirmed to swissinfo.ch, Hamdaoui intends to sue for defamation and incitement to racial hatred.
As Agency C, instigator of the publicity campaign on the Biel buses, noted in a written statement to swissinfo.ch: “We denounce the hateful comments against anyone who criticises our campaigns. On the other hand, we understand that many inhabitants of our country are saddened by the declarations of this politician, because of their attachment to the Bible and the hope it offers.”
Religion: a cantonal matter
Hamdaoui emphasises, however, that he merely questioned the campaign of Christian slogans and the place given to proselytising statements in a public space.
It’s an issue that is not decided at the national level as Switzerland does not have a general system of separation of church and state. The Federal Constitution emphasises in Article 72 the role of the cantons, while underlining that potential intervention by authorities is possible if religious peace is threatened.
“Within the limits of their respective powers, the Confederation and the cantons can take their own measures to maintain the peace between the members of diverse religious communities,” states the article.
Religious peace threatened?
But for Hamdaoui, the Bible verses posted on the buses in his city threaten religious peace desired by the founders of modern Switzerland (1848), which frames religious campaigning – or proselytising – in public spaces, without forbidding it.
Agency C, which has organised and financed such campaigns across Switzerland for the past 20 years, rejects the accusation of proselytising: “Agency C has set itself a mission of making known the riches contained in the Bible. None of our campaigns recruit anyone for a movement or religious community,” the organisation’s president, Peter Stucki, said in a written statement.
Is the campaign so innocent? Certainly not, says Philippe Borgeaud, a religious historian at the University of Geneva. “By posting ‘May the Lord bless you’, the display does not invite reflection, but manifests action toward its viewers. Personally, I find it unbearable. It’s like a witch cast a spell on me.”
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