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Ministers attack minarets campaign

People's Party parliamentarian Schlüer launching the campaign earlier this month

(Keystone)

A campaign by rightwingers to ban the construction of minarets has provoked a sharp response from three members of Switzerland's seven-strong cabinet.

Commentators say the swift reaction by ministers is partly due to fears that it could lead to a backlash against Switzerland in the Muslim world.

The campaign to force a nationwide vote on minarets was launched two weeks ago. Driven by a group of rightwing politicians, it is widely seen as a simple piece of electioneering ahead of October's parliamentary elections.

But according to Georg Lutz, a political scientist at Bern University, senior government figures fear the affair could damage Switzerland's reputation among Muslim countries.

On Monday Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who also holds the rotating Swiss presidency, told journalists in Geneva that such an initiative "could put Swiss interests and Swiss citizens in danger".

Her comments came a day after Defence Minister Samuel Schmid said the campaign was going down the "wrong road".

Then on Wednesday it was the turn of Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin to come out against the proposal, saying that a confrontation between people of different faiths had to be avoided.

"Unusual" move

Lutz told swissinfo that the move by three cabinet ministers to condemn a people's initiative at such an early stage was "rather unusual".

"First, they are worried that this might turn into something where the Muslim world mobilises against Swiss interests and institutions. After the experience of Denmark [over the Mohammed cartoons], many countries are more aware," he said.

"Second, it's such an obvious and populist election initiative that this maybe prompted some ministers to comment when they would not normally take a position."

This might sound strange in relation to Schmid, who belongs to the same rightwing party – the Swiss People's Party – as some of those behind the initiative. But Lutz said the defence minister, who is known as a moderate, probably believes it goes too far.

The People's Party has yet to back the campaign but party member Ulrich Schlüer, co-president of the campaign committee, believes this will be forthcoming at its general assembly at the end of June.

Minarets row

As for whether the minarets row had the legs to run and run, the political scientist said it was impossible to predict.

"It was launched to support the election campaign and if there is limited attention nationally and internationally, the topic will soon be dead," he said.

"But the fact that three cabinet ministers have expressed such a clear opinion shows they are alert to what can potentially happen and the tragic effect it could have on Swiss interests abroad."

Yves Besson, a former Swiss diplomat and Middle East expert, agrees there is a danger that things could spiral "out of control" but he too says it is too early to tell.

"I have seen certain blogs on Al-Jazeera where they have been talking about a ban on mosques in Switzerland and not minarets, and that's very dangerous," he said. "But at the moment we need to see if tensions rise or fall."

Besson suggested that the time could come when the government might need to launch a diplomatic counter-offensive but he said that moment had not been reached.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

People's initiative

The people's initiative allows every citizen to propose a modification of the constitution. To be valid it must be signed by at least 100,000 ...

In brief

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 minsters.

end of infobox

Key facts

There are around 340,000 Muslims in Switzerland.
Almost 12% of them hold a Swiss passport.
Most of them come from the Balkans or Turkey.
Numbers have risen in recent years, rising from 2.2% of the population in 1990 to 4.3% in 2000.

end of infobox

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