A leading member of the Swiss Council of Religions explains in detail why the body rejects a rightwing-supported ban on minaret construction.
The proposal for a ban will go to a nationwide vote on November 29. Council secretary Markus Sahli tells swissinfo.ch that education and integration are the best remedies for religious fundamentalism in Switzerland.
swissinfo.ch: The main argument the Council has used is freedom of religion. How does the body define this?
Markus Sahli: Freedom of religion is a universal human right. Every person has the right to practise his religion freely, openly and as part of a community. In our society freedom of religion is often understood as the freedom to abandon religion - for instance, not to belong to a religious community.
The positive aspect is also important: the freedom to practise religion or to be for religion. Of course, freedom of religion also has its limits. These are reached when human rights are affected, where laws and constitutions are questioned, and public order is disturbed.
swissinfo.ch: What does freedom of religion mean as far as the wearing of headscarves is concerned?
M.S.: That is a difficult question. The Council is convinced that there are no easy answers. One must look at it on a case by case basis.
A current example is a female basketball player in Lucerne who can no longer play due to a headscarf ban in the league. The question has to be asked: what does freedom of religion mean in sport? The Council of Religions is of the opinion that the right of individuals to be allowed to express their religious convictions is also protected in public life. One can debate whether limits should already be placed on this right at the sport club level.
The Council of Religions is convinced that religious peace can only be guaranteed if the state is religiously neutral – if it has no religious denomination of its own. That's why it's clear that religious freedom can be restricted, for example, if a believer is in the service of the state. The Council understands when, for instance, individual rights of teachers at public schools are restricted. Only in this way can the person be seen as representing the state.
swissinfo.ch: What does that mean for students?
M.S.: In Switzerland, you are of age at 16. Until that time, parents are responsible for the religious education of their children. I think it is legitimate for parents to pass on their traditions to their offspring.
swissinfo.ch: What does the Council of Religions suggest as an answer to fundamentalism? In public statements, the Council has referred to fears among the population concerning this.
M.S.: We think that the minaret initiative promotes fundamentalism. As soon as religious issues are instrumentalised, the differences between population groups are opened up. The Council of Religions takes the opposite approach – integration.
swissinfo.ch: What do you mean exactly?
M.S.: Fundamentalism of any kind – Jewish, Christian, Islamic – must be fought because fundamentalism violates human rights. It considers itself absolute. Concretely – looking at the situation of Islam in Switzerland – Moslems should be allowed to practise their beliefs in worthy houses of god and not in back alleys, and Imams should have the corresponding training that is up to western standards. Interreligious dialogue is also important. Education and integration are the best remedies for fundamentalism.
swissinfo.ch: In a liberal-secular society like Switzerland, is it desirable for religious communities to speak out on legal issues? Shouldn't there be a strict separation of religion and state?
M.S.: The voices of churches and religious communities are needed, especially in a liberal-secular society. Institutions are needed which, in their core business, devote themselves to meaningful issues and values. We need common values if we want to preserve the cohesion of our society.
swissinfo.ch: But it is exactly in these value issues that there are contradictions and incoherency between the constitution and religious guidelines. For instance, constitutionally guaranteed equality between men and women is not respected in some religious orders.
M.S.: Yes, there are contradictions. That's why it's important to live in a constitutional state. The constitution and laws apply to all people, regardless of their religion. In this way, every person has the right to withdraw from a religious community which, in his opinion for example, does not put equality into action.
Eveline Kobler, swissinfo.ch (translated from German by Dale Bechtel)
Markus Sahli is a Protestant minister. Currently, he is also secretary of the Council of Religions and the personal assistant of its president, Thomas Wipf.
Sahli is 50 year old, and married.
Swiss Council of Religions
The Swiss Council of Religions (SCR) was founded in 2006. The declared aim of the Council is to talk more with one another rather than about one another.
The Council is composed of leading figures from the three national churches, the Jewish community and Islamic organisations, each of whom has received a mandate from their governing bodies.
The aims of this dialogue platform include contributing to the preservation of religious peace in Switzerland and promoting understanding and trust between the leaders of faith communities. The SCR is also meant to be a conversation partner for the federal authorities.
Religious breakdown of Swiss population, 2000
Roman Catholic – 41.8%
State-recognised Protestant – 33.0%
Free (mainly evangelical) Protestant – 2.2%
Old Catholic – 0.2%
Orthodox – 1.8%
Other Christians – 0.2%
Jewish community – 0.2%
Muslim – 4.3%
Buddhist – 0.3%
Hindu – 0.4%
Other – 0.1%
No religion – 11.1%