Sale of Swiss churches not blessed by all

The New Apostolic church at Le Locle has already been snapped up (bollinger immobilier.ch) bollinger-immobilier.ch

Selling unwanted church buildings to other religious communities or individuals is no longer a taboo in much of Europe. In Switzerland the practice is spreading.

This content was published on March 7, 2007 - 14:18

But the Catholics and Protestants – the country's largest religious denominations – go about it in rather different ways.

"Welcome to my new house," says Philippe Saltarski, with a big smile, as he shows off his home in Le Locle, near Neuchâtel.

Traces of its past are still much in evidence. In between a perilously leaning stereo system and a huge church candle, are stacked rows of wooden benches, which are destined for the rubbish tip. An old organ silently stands in the corner.

Light shines through the stained glass windows, adding to the eerie atmosphere.

Until a few months ago this building was a church belonging to the local New Apostolic community.

Saltarski, a manager, bought it last December for SFr280,000 ($229,000) after the New Apostolic church decided to sell following a huge drop in congregation size.

The Protestant St Leonhard Church in St Gallen experienced the same fate in 2005 when it was sold to an architect for SFr400,000.

Renovations would have run into several millions of francs, which was deemed too expensive, especially as the church was no longer being used for services.

This trend is becoming more and more common in countries including Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, where former churches have been converted into museums, libraries, cinemas, discos and even mosques.

Relatively rare

But it still remains relatively rare in Switzerland, where the recognised denominations – Catholic, Protestant and Old Catholic – are all supported by church tax levied on a cantonal or parish basis.

"We prefer to keep the church and use it now and then for other activities such as concerts and exhibitions," Simon Weber, spokesman for the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, told swissinfo.

For the Catholic Swiss Bishops Conference, selling is "an exception", according to spokesman Walter Müller.

However, over the past three decades congregation sizes in both religions have been declining – in 1970, 95 per cent of Swiss said they were either Catholic or Protestant. In 2000 it was just 20 per cent.

"More than the decline of the faithful, what is really affecting the parishes is rather the fall in numbers of parish priests," said Müller. "It requires thinking about new purposes for places of worship and in the future selling may be an alternative."

But not at any cost. Last July the Bishops Conference issued a set of guidelines on church conversions.

"Even when they have been deconsecrated, churches and chapels still retain their symbolic and liturgical significance in the eyes of the faithful," explained Müller.

"A sale is therefore ruled out if there is no guarantee that the new purpose is compatible with the Christian church and its ethical principles."

Conformity to values

Priority has therefore been given to communities with similar pastoral missions – as in the case of the Capuchin monastery in Arth, central Switzerland, which was sold to the Syrian Orthodox Church.

If this is not possible, secular society may also buy, but only if the cultural and social aims conform to Christian values.

"This means no churches will be transformed into discos," said Müller. Mosques are also ruled out as, in principle, the guidelines do not allow the sale of churches to other religions.

Müller says, if no solution can be found, tearing down the building would also an option.

The situation is not the same for the Protestant Church. "As we are not asked to sell our churches and we don't really need to do so, I don't see the need to issue guidelines," said Weber. "If a specific situation arises, we'll deal with it in due course."

The New Apostolic community did not impose any conditions on Saltarski concerning the use of his building. He is intending to convert it into a spacious residence, with one part reserved for a small bar.

The only protest he has had so far has come – rather unexpectedly - from a bank, which refused him a loan for the work. The reason – renovating a church for private use is "too unusual a project".

swissinfo, based on an Italian article by Anna Passera

Key facts

Religion in Switzerland (2000)
42% Catholic (-7% from 1970)
35% Protestant (-12%)
11% Atheist (+10%)
4.3% Muslim (+4%)
0.2% Jewish (-0.1%)

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In brief

In the Catholic Church a place of worship has to be deconsecrated before it can be sold or converted.

The deconsecrating takes places in a liturgical ceremony.

Protestants do not hold any ceremonies of this kind, as churches are not considered to be sacred places.

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