One of the Catholic Church's leading experts on Islam says the Swiss authorities need to keep a closer eye on the country's mosques.
Pierre Bürcher, assistant bishop of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg, tells swissinfo it is what goes on inside mosques rather than the construction of minarets that poses a greater threat to peace.
His comments come just weeks after a group of rightwing politicians launched a nationwide campaign to ban the construction of minarets.
Bürcher is president of the Swiss Bishops Conference's working group on Islam, which was set up in 2001. He says meetings with Muslims both at home and abroad – the body has visited Iran and Syria – have led to improved relations and better understanding between both religious communities.
But he warns that the road towards a truly peaceful co-existence remains long and rocky.
swissinfo: You say that relations are improving at a religious level. But aren't they constantly being undermined by global political events?
P.B.: Inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue is a major challenge at the start of the 21st century and in recent decades the Catholic Church has made a priority of establishing contacts with other religions. Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor John Paul II have said this dialogue is vital for the future of our society.
At a political level, both at home and abroad in Iran and Syria, we have always been well received by the various authorities. The difficulties stem from a very small extremist fringe, which poses enormous problems but does not represent true Islam.
swissinfo: Christians in some Middle East countries do not enjoy anything like the same religious freedoms as Muslims in Switzerland. Was there any indication during your visits to the region that this might eventually change?
P.B.: Fortunately in Switzerland we have freedom of religion and worship; in other countries the situation is somewhat different. If you take some Gulf states, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Christians are free to worship and it is often the emirs themselves who provide land for the construction of a church.
But in Saudi Arabia there is neither freedom of religion nor worship, yet there are many Christians who live and work there. I hope the day will come when it will be possible for Christians to worship in Saudi Arabia. We need to continue to put pressure on the Muslim authorities and the Saudi government for this to change.
At the same time we now have this initiative in Switzerland against the construction of minarets, which shows there is a certain amount of extremism here as well.
swissinfo: Indeed, this initiative is clearly a reaction to the spread of Islam and Islamic law in Switzerland. Where does the Catholic Church stand on this issue?
P.B.: It is essential that we respect the laws laid down in Switzerland and we cannot allow them to be fundamentally undermined by another way of thinking, such as sharia law.
It's true that the minaret is a symbol for Muslims but it is not an essential part of a mosque and we should not get fixated on it. What goes on inside a mosque is much more important, because it's there that the Koran is taught and where you can have people stepping out of line. It is in this place of worship that the khutba [Islamic sermon], which is often politicised, and all the anti-Western or even terrorist teaching can take place.
Do the authorities really know what is going on and whether it is legal? This seems far more important to me than whether you can build a minaret or not.
swissinfo: So you're saying the authorities need to keep a closer eye on what's going on inside mosques in Switzerland?
P.B.: Yes, because one needs to be aware that in Muslim tradition, politics, culture, society and religion are all entwined. We are touching here on a fundamental difference between two religious concepts and the slightest tolerance in this domain will be extremely damaging for peace and co-existence. It is because of this that mosques in many Muslim countries are coming under increased surveillance and the khutba is always monitored.
swissinfo: It is clear that there is a fear of Islam, not just in Switzerland but also in other Western countries. How can this be overcome?
P.B.: One of the reasons for this fear is that our two religions are different and we still lack a sense of mutual understanding. Secondly, newcomers can often create unease or even fear because they may upset the balance. Therefore we need to learn how to live with each other, otherwise we will run into major problems.
swissinfo: But centuries have passed and we have yet to find a solution. What makes you think we can do so now?
P.B.: The most fervent believer, whether they be Christian, Jew or Muslim, will never attain perfection and we are on a similar path when it comes to inter-cultural and inter-religious relations. The human being has its limits; unfortunately we are not perfect and neither are our societies.
swissinfo-interview: Adam Beaumont
A group of rightwing politicians has launched a campaign to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland.
Those behind the people's initiative have until November 2008 to raise the 100,000 signatures required to force a nationwide vote on the issue.
The country's Muslim community says it is stunned by what it sees as an "Islamophobic" move, which it warns will undermine already fragile relations.
Both the Protestant and Catholic churches have rallied to their defence, along with most political parties, human rights experts and a number of cabinet ministers.
Working group on Islam
The body was set up in 2001 and is made up mainly of Catholics, but there are also Protestant and Muslim members.
The group's aim is to help resolve questions within the Catholic Church raised by the growing presence of Muslims in Switzerland, such as inter-religious marriages and the wearing of the veil.
It also organises visits to Muslim communities in Switzerland and abroad. Members travelled to Iran last year at the invitation of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization and visited Syria in March this year.
Bürcher says they hope in the near future to visit the Balkans, where the bulk of Switzerland's 340,000 Muslims come from.
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