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Religions' council aims to defend Swiss values

Cemeteries are one of the few places where religious harmony can reign Keystone

The president of the Swiss Council of Religions, which was set up last year, says interreligous dialogue is more necessary now than ever.

This content was published on September 4, 2007 - 09:47

Thomas Wipf gave an interview to swissinfo in the context of a new dossier on the changing face of religion in Switzerland, which was launched on Monday.

But Wipf says the principles of human dignity, religious freedom and the separation of church and state must not be compromised by the growth of some faiths.

Wipf, who is also president of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, believes the council can help preserve religious peace in Switzerland in an evolving religious landscape.

swissinfo: Have changes in the religious landscape altered the way in which different faiths in Switzerland talk to one another?

Thomas Wipf: Switzerland has long been a multicultural and multiconfessional country. What has changed is the arrival of Muslims: we now have people with very different traditions and values.

The most important thing to realise is that we don't have a consensus on these values. Catholics and Protestants in Switzerland have a common base: our culture and languages share something. But now we have neighbours whose basic values aren't all the same as ours. It took us some time to be aware of this but these people have become part of our society so we have to manage this relationship.

swissinfo: Has there been a lack of interreligious dialogue?

T.W.: Interreligious dialogue means understanding one another and it is only really getting off the ground now. We know nothing about Islam; by the same token we know little about the Jewish faith.

swissinfo: How is the Council of Religions contributing to this dialogue?

T.W.: Its creation was a very important sign that religious leaders want to work together in a multilateral fashion. We also want to be a dialogue partner for the government and we now have very clear signs that the authorities want to talk with us.

swissinfo: When you speak to the authorities, what kind of message are you trying to get across?

T.W.: Under the Swiss and western system of separation of church and state, the state is not responsible for the truth, but for freedom. That's a view that is different from that of many Muslim societies. Our state has no religion. Politicians have often considered faith to be a private affair.

But [religion] can also be used and abused by politicians. That's why we thought it was necessary to create the council. Before, there were no political discussions involving religion, but that has changed. Our politicians are now aware they have to dialogue with religious movements.

swissinfo: Has religion become a plaything for politicians?

T.W.: In Switzerland, there is a danger of that happening. The question of minarets has been raised ahead of the next election because some groups want to tap into the uncertainties and fears of people as the country's Muslim population grows. The council believes it has to fight this trend.

swissinfo: The council represents Christians, Jews and Muslims: is it easy to get together, discuss your problems and agree on solutions?

T.W.: No, it's not easy at all, but we have no alternative. On the human level, understanding and sharing our problems is not difficult. But when we have discussions about conversions, our place in society, equality, human rights, it is more difficult.

We are not prepared to question the values of Swiss society. We have to discuss very profound differences, but we also have give clear signals about what is off-limits. People who are integrated understand the value of our rights. But we have to deal with the influence of Islamic states with different conceptions to ours.

swissinfo: You have called on Muslims to play a greater role in the interreligious dialogue. Why have you done this?

T.W.: My problem has been that there are religious leaders here and abroad giving what I consider to be strange signals on important questions, stating for example that there is no difference between state and religion. This needs to be clarified. We need to work with the different branches of Islam and make clear that they don't just have rights but also duties in Swiss society.

swissinfo-interview: Scott Capper

Key facts

Religious breakdown of the population, 2000 census:
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%

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Talking together

The Swiss Council of Religions (SCR) was founded in May 2006.

It brings together representatives from the three national churches, the Jewish community and Islamic organisations.

The council's aims include preserving religious peace in Switzerland and promoting understanding and trust between different faiths.

The SCR says it expects to meet Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin twice a year to discuss current religious and political topics.

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