Religious leaders in Switzerland and abroad have warned that a referendum in which Swiss citizens voted for a constitutional ban on the building of minarets in their country undermines social harmony.
"The Lutheran World Federation regrets that some sectors of Swiss society and politics found it necessary to take the issue of the construction of minarets in Switzerland to a referendum, and to force a decision for or against a ban," the federation's General Secretary, the Rev Ishmael Noko, told Ecumenical News International on 30 November 2009.
The Lutheran leader's statement followed the Swiss vote the previous day in which about 57.5 percent of those who voted supported a ban on the construction of minarets being added to the country's constitution.
The Geneva-based LWF groups about 69 million Protestant Christians worldwide.
The initiative for banning minarets was backed by the Swiss People's Party, which is on the far right and opposes immigration to the country.
Those who supported the ban said the minaret is a "symbol of political power" in a mainly Christian country and that constructing minarets is not a theological requirement in Islam.
A poster campaign in favour of the ban depicted a woman in a body-swathing burqa in front of minarets styled as missiles sprinkled on a Swiss flag, with the word "Stop" on it.
Noko said that while there may be a legitimate interest in preserving and protecting a specific Swiss historical and cultural heritage, "this action has framed this interest in explicitly sectarian terms vis-a-vis Muslims".
The LWF leader, who is also convenor of Inter-Faith Action for Peace in Africa, stated, "It thereby undermines efforts at inter-religious understanding and harmony in Switzerland, and the Swiss reputation and heritage of tolerance and hospitality."
After Christianity, which accounts for 76 percent of the Swiss population of 7.6 million, Islam, with almost 4.5 percent, is the second biggest religion in Switzerland.
In Rome, a Vatican official said he supported the stand of Switzerland's Roman Catholic bishops on the issue.
"I have the same position as Swiss bishops, who yesterday affirmed that the result of referendum is a heavy blow to religious freedom and to integration," said Archbishop Antonio Maria Vegliò, president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
Babacar Ba, the Geneva ambassador of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, was quoted by the swissinfo.ch Internet news site as saying he was surprised and disappointed by the result.
"It is a bad answer to a bad question. I fear that this kind of thing is simply a gift to extremism and intolerance," said Ba. "I think we must be very vigilant in the face of the upsurge of Islamophobia."
The Swiss Council of Religions - which groups Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders - said it "deplores" the approval of the referendum to ban minarets.
"It does not solve any problems," stated the council, saying that the decision should not be understood as evidence of a "general anti-Islamic sentiment" in Switzerland but rather as an expression of widespread societal insecurity.
"Jews, Christians and Muslims must work together with all other groups of society to make an even more resolute stand for the protection of civil rights and liberties, for the dialogue with the Muslim population, and for the path of integration," it stated.
Switzerland holds frequent referendums at federal, cantonal and the local level,
"The minaret ban will not solve any problems but will create new ones," the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches said in a statement. "Religious communities now have a special responsibility to make a contribution to a peaceful coexistence."
The federation's president, the Rev. Thomas Wipf, said, "The universal validity of human rights, particularly the right to free exercise of belief, are achievements that must not be abandoned."
The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, described a ban on the construction of minarets as being contrary to Switzerland's obligations under international human rights law and constituting "a clear discrimination" against the country's Muslims.
"I have deep concerns at the negative consequences that the outcome of the vote will have on the freedom of religion or belief of members of the Muslim community in Switzerland," said Jahangir, a human rights lawyer from Pakistan.
The result of the vote adds one sentence to the Swiss constitution: "The construction of minarets is prohibited."
There are currently four minarets in Switzerland and they will not be affected by the vote.
The Swiss government, the federal council, said in a statement distributed in Arabic as well as in other languages, "the construction of new minarets in Switzerland is no longer permitted".
The construction of mosques continues to be permitted, the statement noted. "Muslims in Switzerland are able to practise their religion alone or in community with others, and live according to their beliefs just as before."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]