A Swiss official has warned at an anti-discrimination conference there is a marked risk of increasing intolerance against Muslims in Europe.
Anton Thalmann, the deputy state secretary of foreign affairs, told swissinfo that intolerance based on religion was a dangerous tendency that also affected fundamental Swiss values.
He told the meeting, organised by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), that co-existence between people with different religions was a daily challenge.
Thalmann - who addressed the Conference on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Muslims in Cordoba, Spain on Tuesday - welcomed the visit of OSCE special representative Ömür Orhun to Switzerland in November.
The visit has been delayed until after this month's federal elections at the request of the Swiss foreign ministry.
swissinfo: The Cordoba conference deals with the issue of intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. Does Switzerland have a problem in this area?
Anton Thalmann: The conference offered an opportunity to compare the situation of Muslims in the countries of the OSCE and discuss similarities and differences. There was general agreement that in the recent past there has been a marked increase in the risk of intolerance against Muslims in particular but also against other faith communities.
Switzerland is obviously not immune to incidents motivated by incomprehension and fear and I said we were perfectly aware of this. It was interesting that [most] views were pretty similar and everybody seems to be suffering from the same problem.
swissinfo: What practical measures were suggested at the conference to combat intolerance?
A.T.: The first step is to recognise and acknowledge the problem. It takes a multi-faceted approach with education programmes to foster tolerance and respect for others.
Muslim communities need to be encouraged to work together with the authorities. We also have to collect data on hate crimes and try to introduce adequate legislation. And you need responsible journalism. The media can play a very important positive role in promoting intercultural and interreligious understanding.
swissinfo: What can Muslims do to improve their standing in Swiss society?
A.T.: They can make use of the means available within Swiss institutions to further their causes. That's their right as citizens.
swissinfo: And if they are not citizens yet because of the slow naturalisation system?
A.T.: That's a process that takes time and they have to defend the rights that they have. You can't deprive a foreigner on Swiss territory of their human rights and this is something they can actively defend.
swissinfo: Muslims are the biggest religious group in Switzerland after Christians. Is it possible that there are "too many" Muslims in Switzerland?
A.T.: I don't think so. We have a long tradition of interreligious dialogue in Switzerland. The question is not how many people we have but how they can integrate and how they can defend their rights under the Swiss constitution and the liberties it offers.
The state guarantees religious freedom and co-existence between people of different religious backgrounds and that's a daily challenge.
swissinfo: What is the significance of Ambassador Orhun's visit to Switzerland in November?
A.T.: I think that it is an important visit because he is looking at the different countries in the OSCE with a common set of standards and he is trying to promote the cause of respect and tolerance for all religions. Switzerland, which is proud of its liberties, is obviously very interested in playing its part in this process.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is a pan-European security body of 56 participating countries. It deals with three dimensions of security – the politico-military, the economic and environmental and the human.
Ömür Orhun has worked part time for the past three years as an OSCE ambassador in combating intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. He was head of the Turkish Delegation to the OSCE for four years from 2000 to 2004.
He will visit Switzerland in November on behalf of the Spanish chair of the OSCE and will be met by various Swiss representatives.
Muslims in Switzerland
Muslims are the largest religious group in Switzerland after the Christian faiths.
The 2000 census showed their numbers had more than doubled over the previous decade to 310,000. It is estimated that this figure now stands at around 340,000.
The rightwing Swiss People's Party is currently campaigning to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland.
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