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Church occupiers reject calls to leave

The group occupying Fribourg's St Paul church said on Monday that it was staying put

(Keystone)

A group of 84 immigrants who have been occupying a church in Fribourg for the past 11 weeks in a bid to secure residency rights have rejected a compromise proposal from local authorities that all but five of them should leave the building immediately.

Representatives of the local parish said they would allow five of the protesters to remain inside the church as a symbolic gesture, but called on the rest to vacate the building.

The protesters rejected the offer, saying they were only prepared to reduce the number of people taking refuge inside the church to 30.

The group has already ignored an earlier ultimatum, which ordered them to leave the church by Monday or face eviction. In a show of defiance at a press conference on Monday, the group unfurled a banner with the words "We're here to stay".

They have said they are prepared to hold out until they are granted the right to remain in Switzerland. For the time being they have the blessing of the local priest, Olivier Humbert.

"The church has a duty to welcome the poor, the marginalised and foreigners," Humbert told swissinfo. "This is a cause which is important to support. We've taken a clear position so that people know the church supports poor people not just in words but in actions because they really need us."

But the Parish is divided over its support of the immigrants, and many have voiced their concern over the matter.

Political hot potato

The plight of the foreigners has become a political hot potato and their peaceful protest has catapulted the issue to the heart of Swiss politics.

Fourteen nationalities are represented in the Fribourg collective, which includes people who were given temporary asylum in Switzerland or granted seasonal work permits, but whose documentation has expired. Most have lived here for many years.

"The church is now a symbolic place for immigrants who don't have the necessary papers to stay in the country," says Anni Lanz, a member of "Solidarité sans frontières", a charity that helps migrants. " Everyone in Switzerland knows about these immigrants and it won't end until there's a political solution."

Other immigrants follow example

The immigrants' cause has sparked similar protests in other parts of French-speaking Switzerland, like the occupation of a church in Lausanne and most recently in La Chaux-de-Fonds, where 25 people from Africa, Kosovo and Kurdistan moved into the "Maison du Peuple". All are demanding the right to live and work in Switzerland.

Whether or not a political solution can be found to bring an end to their peaceful protests, the immigrants appear to have won significant public and political support for their campaign.

A survey conducted in French-speaking Switzerland last weekend suggested that 60 per cent of people would favour an across-the-board regularisation of the status of all clandestine workers, one of the key demands of those occupying the Saint-Paul church.

But for the time being the immigrants will have to wait as their request to stay in Switzerland is considered by the authorities.

by Sally Mules


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