Voters in Switzerland have approved a referendum that bans the construction of minarets, Swiss media are reporting. The surprise result is certain to embarrass the government and dismay the country's Muslim minority.
A clear majority of Swiss voted to ban the construction of minarets
The Swiss news agency ATS and other media outlets report that a clear majority, 57.5 percent of voters and all but four of Switzerland's 26 cantons approved the proposal in this nationwide referendum. Of eligible voters, 53 percent turned out to vote.
The government has said it will respect the decision of the people and would no longer permit the construction of new minarets in Switzerland, but tried to assure the Muslim minority that the ban was "not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture."
"Muslims in Switzerland are able to practice their religion alone or in community with others and live according to their beliefs just as before," it said in a statement.
The right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), Switzerland's biggest party, was the driving force behind the referendum, along with the conservative Federal Democratic Union. They succeeded in gathering 100,000 signatures within 18 months, which is needed to call a referendum under Swiss law.
Ban supporters say that minarets - like this one in Geneva - represent claims to power
The SVP said Switzerland's four existing minarets are not mere architectural features on religious buildings but represent a "political-religious claim to power, which challenges fundamental rights."
"We're enormously happy," said Walter Wobmann, president of the initiative committee. "It is a victory for this people, this Switzerland, this freedom and those who want a democratic society."
Earlier, he had told Reuters that the goal was to stop "further Islamization in Switzerland."
"People may practice their religion, that is no problem," he said.
Some 400,000 Muslims live in Switzerland, making them the nation's second largest religious group.
"The most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote," said Farhad Afshar, head of the Coordination of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland. "Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community."
Nadia Karmous, president of the Cultural Association of Muslim Women in Switzerland, told Le Temps newspaper: "I feel sad for Switzerland. Imagine the impact abroad. The image of the (country) is already that of a racist country."
The conference of Swiss Bishops also criticized the result, saying that it "heightens the problems of cohabitation between religions and cultures."
The referendum was held using Switzerland's system of "direct democracy," which allows individuals and groups to propose laws which are then put to a public ballot, bypassing parliament.
The SVP's referendum poster has been criticized as "sinister" and "racist"
The collective executive branch of the government - the Swiss Federal Council - criticized the vote, saying it could damage Switzerland's image in the Arab world, and make the country appear intolerant of religious diversity.
The government had encouraged Swiss people to vote against the ban.
"Muslims should be able to practice their religion and have access to minarets in Switzerland, too," President Hans-Rudolf Merz said in a last-minute video broadcast to the nation. "But the call of the muezzin will not sound here."
Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said she was "shocked" and "deeply regretted" the outcome, which she said had to be seen in the context of globalization and the economic crisis.
"Fears and anxieties were played on," she told reporters.
Editor: Kyle James