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Town gives minaret thumbs down

Minarets are traditionally used by the muezzin to call the Muslim faithful to prayer Keystone

A Turkish cultural association says it is likely to appeal a decision by local authorities in Wangen, canton Solothurn, to block the construction of a minaret.

This content was published on February 8, 2006 - 11:00

The town's building commission said no to the project on Tuesday because of zoning restrictions, but the association believes the decision has more to do with politics.

The Olten Turkish cultural association put in a request last year to add a six-metre-high minaret to the building that houses its activities in Wangen.

But the local building commission vetoed the idea because the construction would take place in an industrial zone. Town councillor Max Zülli said that religious communities could only build a house of worship in a public area.

Given the sacred status of a minaret, it was not possible to let the project proceed, he said.

The cultural association told swissinfo it was surprised by the decision.

"This was a political ruling," said the association's spokesman, Süleyman Osmanof. "The locals were afraid of a minaret in their community and many of them were against its construction."

Opposition

When the association applied for a building permit last September, opposition to the project was quickly organised. In just a few days, a local member of the rightwing Swiss People's Party gathered the signatures of 400 citizens opposed to the minaret, warning of "Islamic encroachment".

The town has only 4,700 inhabitants.

The Protestant and Catholic communities were also against the project, fearing that religious peace would suffer.

Zülli said the building commission's decision was based purely on legal criteria and had no political undertones, with community pressure being ignored. The town's mayor has however publicly stated that he was against the project, given public opinion.

For Osmanof, this opposition was at least in part due to the fact that people did not understand the role of the minaret.

"It is a symbol that can be seen all over the world," he told swissinfo. "There were no politics in our project."

According to Osmanof, when this is explained to locals, opposition usually faded away.

Appeal

The cultural association says it intends to appeal the decision with the canton's justice department.

The association says it will use all legal means at its disposal to get approval for its project, but adds that it will abide by any final decision.

"We will stay in Wangen even if we cannot build the minaret," said Osmanof. "We already own the building, so we aren't considering moving."

Construction of minarets has proven problematic in Switzerland. The authorities in Wohlen, canton Aargau turned down a similar request recently.

The Muslim community in Biel also faced opposition to its project to build a centre in the nearby village of Nidau.

There are two minarets in Switzerland to date, at the Geneva and Zurich mosques.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

The main function of a mosque's minaret was traditionally to provide a vantage point from which the muezzin could call the faithful to prayer.

But in most modern mosques, the muezzin works from the prayer hall, via a microphone and speaker system.

Therefore, the role of the minaret is now largely for traditional and decorative purposes.

The six-metre-high Wangen project is only decorative and contains no loudspeakers.

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Key facts

The latest census showed that 311,000 Muslims live in Switzerland, many of them from the Balkans or Turkey.
Numbers have almost doubled in recent years, from 2.2% of the population in 1990 to 4.3% in 2000.
Much of the increase was due to an influx of refugees fleeing war in former Yugoslavia.

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