Church in the World
Church officials across Europe express alarm at Swiss minaret banChrista Pongratz-Lippitt & Robert Mickens
- 5 December 2009
Bishops and prominent churchmen across Europe were quick to express their consternation after a majority of Swiss citizens voted in favour of banning minarets in Switzerland in a referendum last Sunday.
In the nationwide vote some 57 per cent of Switzerland’s eligible voters and the majority of cantons backed the initiative to ban minarets in the Swiss constitution. Turnout was high, at around 54 per cent.
The Swiss bishops immediately published a statement saying it had obviously not been made sufficiently clear to Swiss citizens that banning minarets would damage relations with the Muslim community. The aggressive referendum campaign “with all its exaggerations and distortions” had shown that peace between the different religions was not to be taken for granted and was a continuous challenge, the bishops said. They recalled that throughout the three-year campaign they had pointed out that banning minarets in Switzerland would not help persecuted Christians in Islamic countries but would rather damage their credibility.
The Vatican endorsed the bishops’ comments. Archbishop Antonio Maria Veglio, President of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerants, told the Italian ANSA news agency that they were “on the same page” as the Swiss bishops’ conference. The president of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, said the German bishops’ reaction to the news was one of “great concern”.
“For the very reason that we Christians are against the restrictions on religious freedom that Christians in some Muslim countries are exposed to, we not only protest against these restrictions but support the rights of Muslims here in Germany,” he said.
In Italy a front-page headline in Avvenire, the daily paper owned by the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), said: “The Swiss ‘no’ on minarets shakes Europe.” The paper, which printed three full pages of reactions and analysis, also included a front-page editorial that said the referendum’s result could cause the exact opposite of what the victors hoped to defeat – the militarisation of Islam. “The issue is not how the mosques should be constructed”, the editorial said, “but what is preached and done inside the mosques.” The Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, printed the Swiss bishops’ statement, which the French and Belgian bishops reproduced on their websites.
But the traditionalist Society of St Pius X (SSPX), which has its headquarters at Ecône in Switzerland, was overjoyed at the result. In a long article on its homepage it sharply criticised Archbishop Veglio and all bishops in favour of minarets in the name of religious liberty, accusing them of “unCatholic” views. Such bishops are “either stupid or naive”, the article said, but the Swiss people had recognised the danger of Islam, it concludes.
Some Italian political leaders applauded the result. Roberto Castelli, vice-minister for infrastructure and a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, and other members of his party have called for a similar referendum in Italy. The country’s interior minister, Roberto Maroni, who is also a member of the Northern League, said he was not opposed to the idea.
Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of the northern Archdiocese of Milan said a referendum was not the real issue. He said it was “the social, cultural and educational challenge” that Muslim immigrants present. “We all need to learn how to live together and this will always entail, in an inevitable way, confronting diversity,” he told the paper Corriere della Sera.
In Kenya Archbishop Boniface Lele of the Mombasa Archdiocese, where many Muslims live, said of the ban: “It should not happen. They should listen to Muslims before agreeing to ban the minarets. It is better to have discussions around the issue. I don’t see it happening in any African country. We have many followers of the Muslim faith who we need to co-exist with.”