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Swiss minaret answers "reassure" Muslim bloc

Swiss government clarifications about the minaret initiative have put the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) at ease, its Geneva ambassador tells swissinfo.ch.

Babacar Ba, the OIC representative to the United Nations in Geneva, also outlines a possible offer of mediation in the ongoing Swiss-Libyan hostage crisis.

An initiative to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland launched by members of the People's Party and of a small ultra-conservative Christian party comes to a nationwide vote on November 29.

Supporters of the ban see minarets as political symbols and as a sign of what they term "Islamicisation" in Switzerland. The Swiss government and parliament are recommending voters reject the initiative.

A poll on the issue published on October 23 by the leading gfs.berne polling and research institute says 53 per cent of Swiss currently reject the anti-minaret initiative.

In a separate issue, two Swiss businessmen are at the centre of a diplomatic tussle between Libya and Switzerland.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has accused Libya of "kidnapping" the two, who have been prevented from leaving Tripoli for some 15 months in a row over the brief arrest in Geneva of one of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's sons.

swissinfo.ch: According to Swiss media, the OIC is willing to mediate in the Swiss-Libyan hostage crisis. Is this true?

Babacar Ba: A journalist asked me about the possibility of the OIC helping resolve the Swiss-Libyan crisis.

I told him that as an inter-governmental organisation we favour bilateral resolutions. There have been lots of commitments and procedures undertaken by both sides and we hope there will be a positive outcome.

But if one of the two parties, in particular Libya, which is an OIC member, judges it necessary or useful for the OIC to mediate to help resolve the crisis, we would be willing. We are ready to help to offer our support to resolve this crisis, especially as we have excellent relations with Switzerland.

But we have not been approached by either Switzerland or Libya. And we have not undertaken any kind of initiative to intervene; we were asked whether we could do something.

We are concerned about the current situation and hope for a swift resolution.

swissinfo.ch: The hostage crisis is taking place as Switzerland prepares to vote on a controversial initiative to ban minarets. Are you worried that certain elements might try to exploit these two events together?

B.B.: This situation needs great vigilance to prevent any kind of confusion. It is very easy to take the case of one particular country and to generalise for all other countries and exploit the crisis.

The minaret ban initiative, initiated by a rightwing party, has caused serious concerns. The Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, expressed these during meetings with the Swiss ambassador at the OIC headquarters in Riyadh and at Jeddah earlier this year.

The OIC has had high-level talks with the Swiss authorities over the minaret initiative in Bern, New York and Madrid.

We understand about the people's initiative process, the Swiss Constitution and the democratic system in Switzerland, and we respect Swiss people's sovereign right to take part in initiatives.

But we call on the wisdom and maturity of the Swiss voters not to let themselves be influenced by extremist politics, which create tensions between communities, trying to stigmatise or point the finger at one particular community.

swissinfo.ch: What was discussed during the meetings?

B.B.: In Bern we met with the deputy secretary of state to exchange views on the Swiss democratic system, how it works and on people's initiatives, such as the minaret issue.

We also discussed this initiative's chance of success and the next steps at federal and cantonal level, as well as human rights questions, international security and peace issues and a bilateral OIC-Swiss report.

It was a general meeting to get to know each other better and exchange views on our institutions and better understand how the Swiss democratic system functions and the nuts and bolts of this minaret initiative.

swissinfo.ch: Were you reassured following this meeting?

B.B.: We were very satisfied. Firstly, it reassured us to understand that every Swiss citizen is free to launch a people's initiative if they collect 100,000 signatures.

But we shouldn't simply worry about the initiative. What is important is to evaluate its chances of success. And learning more about the wisdom of the Swiss people, their openness and respect for international conventions, as guardians of human rights and international humanitarian law, reassured us.

This is an ongoing process but it has little chance of success given Switzerland's history and the maturity of Swiss voters to deal with such initiatives.

Mohammed Chérif, swissinfo.ch (translated from French by Simon Bradley)

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC)

The OIC is an international organisation with a permanent delegation to the United Nations.

It has 57 member states, from the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, Caucasus, Balkans, Southeast Asia and South Asia.

The organisation is largely made up of countries whose people are mainly followers of the Islamic religion.

It was established in 1969 in the wake of an arson attack by a deranged tourist on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Its aims are, among other things, to promote all-round cooperation among its member states, to safeguard Islamic holy places and to work towards eradicating racial discrimination and colonialism.

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