The foundation stone for Switzerland's first centre for the Sikh community has been laid in the town of Langenthal. It has been funded entirely by the Sikh community, and is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Although there are only 400 Sikhs in the country, the community attaches great importance to having a permanent centre. Until now religious and cultural events have been held in rented premises in Bern.
"Rented accommodation is not really satisfactory," said Karan Singh, a leading member of Switzerland's Sikh community. "They are obviously not designed for our purposes and we couldn't always do what we wanted to do."
The Sikh religion remains largely unknown in Switzerland: most Swiss cantons still only officially recognise the Protestant and Catholic religions.
The public, at least in Langenthal, also seems uninterested in finding out more about the Sikh religion. Hans-Jurg Kaeser, president of Langenthal town council, told swissinfo that the local population has shown little curiosity about the new centre.
"I was very surprised actually," he said. "Nobody really asked any questions. It was a standard application for building permission, and it went straight through. We have a number of cultural centres for different foreign groups in Langenthal, and I suppose the locals viewed this as simply one more.'
Kaeser added that the Sikh centre will bring work to Langenthal. "The plan was designed by a local architect and a local firm will build it, so that is very positive," he said.
The centre will be a two-storey building with a prayer hall, kitchen, meeting room, and classroom where Sikh children can receive religious instruction.
"It's a very important step for us," said Singh. "It's not that Switzerland needs a Sikh centre, but the Sikhs here in Switzerland need their own premises. We want to keep in touch with our cultural and religious identity."
Singh says Langenthal was chosen because of where it is situated, rather than because it has a large Sikh community. "Langenthal is ideal because it is in the centre of Switzerland," he said. "If Sikh families are coming from Geneva or from Zurich they have an almost equal distance to travel."
The centre will also be open to members of other religious communities.
"Christian, Moslems, Jews, Hindus or whoever are all welcome here," said Singh. "But we are not expecting converts: a Christian visiting our centre will come in as a Christian, and leave as a Christian. So there is nothing to lose and something to learn if people want to. We would like other religious groups to learn something of our culture and traditions."
Kaeser believes the approval for the new centre is a sign that the Swiss are becoming more open towards new ideas.
"I feel very positive about it," he said. "It shows that there is a certain tolerance towards foreign cultures and religions. I think it is very important to show that here in Switzerland there is tolerance and a positive attitude towards the basic rights to life, liberty and property."
by Imogen Foulkes