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Swiss bishop comes out in favour of minarets

The mosque in Zurich was inaugurated in 1963

(Keystone Archive)

The Catholic bishop of Basel, Kurt Koch, says he has nothing against Muslims building minarets in Switzerland.

In an interview with the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, Koch was reacting to the strong opposition among some Swiss to plans for minarets at a number of locations in the country.

He said the conflict behind the debate was much more important than the minarets themselves and fears had to be discussed.

"A minaret for them [Muslims] is of course a sign of identity. If you said to a Christian church that it could build a church but without a tower, then you would also ask the question what the problem was."

But Koch also made the point that Muslim countries should also respect religious freedom for Christians.

"The bishop of Arabia, for example, is not allowed in certain countries to celebrate the Eucharist."

Big fear

He said that the background to the minaret dispute was a big fear of things that were foreign.

"Islam is still little integrated into our society... The problem is really not the strength of Islam but the weakness of Christianity."

"If we were to go back to our roots and stand behind our convictions we could approach other religions more openly," he said. This, he added, was a big challenge.

Koch said it was difficult to judge whether fears were justified but good information could help to overcome them. He also noted there was a danger that Islam could be equated with terror.

"Islam is something quite different from the terrorist aberrations that exist."

Tolerance

Muslims have submitted plans to build minarets at a number of locations, including Wangen near Olten in canton Solothurn, at Langenthal in canton Bern, at Wil in canton St Gallen, Wohlen in canton Aargau and near Biel in canton Bern.

A report from the Swiss Federal Commission against Racism last Friday called for more tolerance towards Muslims and highlighted the minaret controversy in Wangen.

The commission called on cantonal and communal authorities to show greater flexibility over building and zoning restrictions to allow the construction of religious buildings and to "reduce populist pressures".

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

There are about 340,000 Muslims in Switzerland, coming mainly from the Balkans and Turkey.
Their numbers are growing in Switzerland. They represented 2.2% of the population in 1990 and 4.3% in 2000.
One of the main reasons for the rise is the arrival of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

end of infobox

In brief

A minaret is a tower, traditionally part of a mosque, with a balcony from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. In modern mosques, the minaret is equipped with loudspeakers.

In Switzerland, only the mosques in Geneva and Zurich have a minaret. The call to prayer is not made from these minarets.

Swiss Muslims can meet in more than 120 prayer locations, generally in Islamic culture centres.

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