Strong reactions to Swiss minaret ban

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Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen of the Netherlands does not condemn the Swiss minaret ban which was voted in on Sunday. Mr Verhagen said on his Twitter page that the essential thing is for countries to fully guarantee freedom of religion. If that is safeguarded, local planning authorities can decide on additional building rules.

"Anyone should be able to practice their religion, also in mosques. Whether there should be a minaret is decided by the local town planners," Mr Verhagen tweeted (in Dutch).

Dutch MP Geert Wilders' Freedom Party has said it wants a referendum similar to the one held in Switzerland on Sunday . Mr Wilders expects the Dutch to ban new minarets just like a 57.5 percent majority of Swiss did. The ban is limited to the towers only, it does not affect the building of mosques.

Switzerland is home to 6 million Christians and 400,000 Muslims. There are currently 200 mosques in the Alpine country, but only four minarets.

The referendum result is hailed as a breakthrough by the Dutch opposition MP. "It's the first time that people in Europe have stood up to a form of Islamisation."

Right-wingers rejoicing
Other xenophobic nationalist parties in Europe are taking a similar line to the Netherlands' Freedom Party. The Danish populist People's Party led by Pia Kjaersgaard welcomed the vote and demanded that a referendum be held in Denmark, where no minarets have been erected so far.

Austria's right-wing parties FPÖ and BZÖ resurrected their old demand for a minaret ban immediately after the outcome of the Swiss vote was announced. A factual ban is already in effect in the parties' heartland, the provinces of Kärnten and Vorarlberg. Austria has three mosques with minarets.

Mario Borghezio, a Euro-MP for Italy's Northern League (Lega Nord) called for a referendum in Italy, saying "The flag of a courageous Switzerland which wants to remain Christian is flying over a near-Islamised Europe."

Insult to Muslims
Other international reactions to the Swiss vote have been negative and critical. Islamic countries, and Muslims in Switzerland itself, say that banning the building of new minarets puts limits on the freedom of religion. "It's an insult to all Muslims," Egypt's Great Mufti Ali Gomaa said.

Speaking for the joint Islamic Organisations in Switzerland, the group's head Farhad Afshar said,
"The most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote. Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community."

The Swiss government is obliged by law to implement the ban following the popular vote in favour, but the measure is likely to be found in contravention of international agreements, to which Switzerland is bound, such as the European Human Rights Convention and United Nations agreements on human rights.

EU critical
Current EU chair Sweden said that the Swiss ban flouts freedom of expression, and calls it an expression of prejudice. Swedish Immigration Minister Tobias Billström said, "How peculiar that such things are determined by referendum in Switzerland. In my country, they are decided on by local town planners."

Other European politicians added their voices. "It's a manifestation of intolerance," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a reaction.

Explaining the significance of Sunday's referendum, Switzerland's Justice Minister Eveline Wedmer-Schlumpf said in Brussels that the ban targets just the minarets, but "obviously not the Muslim community" in her country. It was "not a vote against Islam, but a vote directed against fundamentalist utterances", she said.

Minarets don't fit the landscape, 57 percent of Swiss say in vote
(Photo: Churches in Thusis, Switzerland. Flickr/Kecko)