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Swiss prefer a good read on Sundays

Swiss churches deny that they have become less relevant to their congregations

(Keystone)

The faithful are deserting the church pews and instead choosing to settle down with a good book, preferably about religion.

That's the conclusion of a recent poll, which found that Swiss Christians don't expect much from their churches. Some 70 per cent of respondents said they had little interest in organised religion.

In the 2000 census, 81 per cent of Swiss described themselves as "Catholic" or "Protestant", but the poll - by the GfS research institute in Zurich - showed that just eight per cent were interested in spirituality within their church.

Instead the Swiss seem to be flocking to bookstores selling esoteric literature. The country's largest book distributor in German-speaking Switzerland says books about religion, spirituality, self-help and mysticism are selling like hot cakes.

Whether these two things are linked is anyone's guess, but the churches firmly deny that they are becoming less relevant to their congregations.

Poll was "slanted"

The Swiss (Catholic) Bishops' Conference says the questions in the GfS poll were "slanted". "The Church is still needed, especially for christenings or for when people are dying," says the conference's secretary-general, Agnell Rickenmann.

The Protestants were also surprised by the poll results. "Our experience is somewhat different," said Thomas Wipf, president of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches.

"Our spiritual work within our churches as well as in places like hospitals and prisons always seems to increase," he added.

However, Wipf doesn't entirely reject the implications of the poll. "The results should make us think whether the Church is close to people, close to their preoccupations, whether we actually mean something to them."

Rickenmann admits the Catholic Church also has a hard time communicating with people at a time when personal concerns have become more important. "We should try and get closer to people, talk to them directly," he told swissinfo.

Beyond preaching

The churches have tried different ways of communicating with the population, beyond merely preaching during services.

In recent years, the protestant churches have posted advertisements with the slogan "Think for yourself". And in July 2001, an ecumenical church opened its doors at Zurich's main station, offering services to travellers and station employees.

The churches have also turned up at the Swiss national exhibition, Expo.02, which opened its doors on May 15. Events are being held on Whit Sunday and on Federal Prayer Day, and they have own pavilion at the Murten exhibition site.

The evidence from the bookstores, though, is that the apparent waning interest in the church does not mean people are losing touch with their spiritual side.

"There is a big interest for books about Christian and Oriental spirituality," said Hans-Jörg Weyermann, the owner of a specialised bookstore in Bern.

When Weyermann opened his shop 36 years ago, nobody, including himself, thought it would be success. "I never thought my selection of books would interest anybody like it does today," he told swissinfo.

The Schweizer Buchzentrum, the largest book distributor in German-speaking Switzerland., has noticed the same trend.

Books about self-help, other religions and mysticism have become bigger sellers in recent times, according to Ernest Imfeld of Buchzentrum.

No figures are available, but these publications seem to be answering a need. "Esoteric books sell better when times are more difficult," said Imfeld.

swissinfo/Felix Münger


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