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2010 Report on International Religious Freedom - Switzerland

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 17 November 2010
Cite as United States Department of State, 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom - Switzerland, 17 November 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4cf2d063c.html [accessed 23 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

[Covers the period from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010]

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

The government generally respected religious freedom in practice. A ban on the building of minarets was enacted by popular referendum during the reporting period.

There were isolated reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, particularly against Muslim and Jewish minorities.

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom with the government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 15,937 square miles and a population of 7.6 million.

Three-quarters of the population nominally belong to either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant churches, and although actual church attendance rates are much lower, 80 percent say they are religious. Of this group, 22 percent acknowledged being "very religious," according to a July-August 2007 Religion Monitor survey sponsored by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

The arrival of immigrants has contributed to the noticeable growth of religious communities that had little presence in the past. The 2000 census notes membership in religious denominations as follows: 41.8 percent Roman Catholic; 35.3 percent Protestant; 4.3 percent Muslim; 1.8 percent Christian Orthodox; and 11.1 percent professed no formal creed. Religious groups that constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Old Catholics, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews.

The majority of Muslims originate from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania, followed by Turkey, North African, and other Arab countries. Muslim immigrants from the Balkans and southeastern Europe typically settle in the German-speaking eastern and central regions, whereas those arriving from North African and other Arab countries commonly relocate to the French-speaking western region. The majority are Sunni Muslims, while other groups include Shi'a and Alawites. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of Muslims are estimated to be practicing believers. The country has two large mosques, in Geneva and Zurich, and approximately 120 official prayer rooms. An estimated additional 100 prayer rooms exist, many of them belonging to Albanian, Turkish, or Arab communities.

Approximately 75 percent of Jewish households are located in Zurich, Geneva, Basel, and Bern.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

Article 15 of the constitution provides for freedom of creed and conscience, and the federal penal code prohibits any form of debasement of or discrimination against any religion or any religious adherents.

The law penalizes public incitement to racial hatred or discrimination, spreading racist ideology, and denying crimes against humanity, and there have been convictions under this legislation for anti-Semitism and historical revisionism, including Holocaust denial.

There is no official state church; religious matters are handled by the cantons according to article 72 of the constitution. Most of the 26 cantons (with the exception of Geneva and Neuchatel, where church and state are separate) financially support at least one of the three traditional religious communities--Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, or Protestant--with funds collected through taxation. Each canton observes its own regulations regarding the relationship between church and state. In some cantons the church tax is voluntary, but in others an individual who chooses not to contribute to the church tax may have to leave the church formally. In some cantons private companies are unable to avoid payment of the church tax. Some cantons grant "church taxation" status to the Jewish community. Islamic and other nonofficial religious groups are excluded from these benefits.

The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, Ascension, Whit Sunday, Whit Monday, Christmas Day, and St. Stephen's Day. Sunday is a public holiday; shops remain closed and Sunday work is generally not allowed.

A religious organization must register with the government in order to receive tax-exempt status.

Although groups of foreign origin are free to proselytize, the government is implementing new regulations that restrict this right. Foreign missionaries must obtain a "religious worker" visa to work in the country. Visa requirements include proof that the foreigner would not displace a citizen from doing the job, has formally completed theological training, and would be supported financially by the host organization. Swiss courts have ruled that certain denominations, such as representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, do not meet these provisions. The Swiss government has imposed quotas limiting the entry of "religious workers" of these denominations for 2010 and 2011 and has informed these denominations that it will not allow admission of any "religious workers" of these denominations effective 2012. The host organization must also acknowledge the country's legal order and must not tolerate its abuse by members, either in theory or in practice.

The Federal Law on Foreigners requires mandatory training for immigrant clerics in order to facilitate their integration into society. Among other provisions, the training program aims to ensure that immigrant clerics can speak at least one of the three main national languages.

Education policy is set at the cantonal level, but school authorities at the county level wield some discretionary power in its implementation. Most public cantonal schools offered religious education, with the exception of schools in Geneva and Neuchatel. Classes in Catholic and Protestant doctrines are normally offered; some schools also cover other religious groups in the country. Since 2002, two municipalities have offered religious classes in Islamic doctrine in the canton of Lucerne. In some cantons, religious classes are voluntary, while in others they form part of the mandatory curriculum; however, waivers are routinely granted for children whose parents request them. Those of different religious groups are free to attend classes for their own creeds during the class period. Parents may also send their children to private religious schools and to classes offered by religious groups, or they may teach their children at home.

A number of cantons have reformed religious education in public schools to either complement or entirely supplant traditional classes in Christian doctrines with nonconfessional teachings about religion and culture. In virtually all cantons contemplating or implementing reform, authorities planned to make the nonconfessional teachings about religion and culture a non-elective part of the curriculum for all pupils.

Regarding waivers on religious grounds from classes other than confessional instruction, there are no national guidelines, and practices vary. Some cantons have issued guidelines not to excuse pupils from swimming or physical education classes. In 2008 the Federal Tribunal reviewed its 1993 ruling regarding exemptions for students from swimming or other physical education classes on religious grounds. The Tribunal's 2008 ruling allows individual cantons to determine when exemptions from swimming lessons are permitted on religious grounds. In order to avoid exemptions from swimming lessons, a number of cantons decided to allow Muslim girls to use a full-coverage swimsuit.

The government's Federal Service for Combating Racism continued to support antiracism activities with money from the regular federal budget. In 2009, it supported 59 projects with a total of $801,720 (871,470 francs). Some projects included the creation of a history lesson sequence for schools on anti-Semitism during the 20th century. It also financed special sensitization workshops for the territorial military police.

Initiatives to ban minarets went through several stages during the reporting period. Four minarets currently stand in the country, at the Geneva, Zurich, Winterthur, and Wangen mosques.

In a November 29, 2009 referendum, 57.5 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment banning the construction of minarets throughout the country. This followed several years of unsuccessful efforts by leaders in the Swiss People's Party and the Federal Democratic Union to hold similar referenda on a canton-by-canton basis, efforts the cantonal parliaments regularly rejected as unconstitutional. The binding referendum passed despite opposition to it by majorities in both parliament and the Federal Council and public statements by many of the country's leaders describing such a ban as contradicting basic values in the country's constitution and violating its international obligations; it resulted in an addition to the constitution: "The building of minarets is prohibited." This addition had no effect on the four existing minarets or on building or worshipping in mosques.

On June 23, 2010, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly adopted a recommendation calling on the government to repeal the ban on minarets on the basis that it discriminates against Muslims. The five Swiss members of the Council of Europe's Parliament also voted in favor of the recommendation.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The government generally respected religious freedom in practice. In addition to the law banning the construction of minarets, there were some restrictions at the local level.

Immigration authorities requested immigrant clerics respect the public order and refused residency permits to imams considered "fundamentalists."

Resident Islamic organizations complained that authorities in many cantons and municipalities discriminated against them by refusing zoning approval to build mosques or Muslim cemeteries.

The Law on the Protection of Animals prevents local ritual slaughter for kosher and halal meat; however, importation of such meat remains legal and available.

On May 4, 2010, the Cantonal Parliament of Aargau decided to submit an initiative calling for a ban on wearing burqas (Muslim full body covering) to the federal government and started a nationwide debate on banning the use of burqas.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

In response to a growing number of soldiers of Muslim faith, the army has drawn up guidelines outlining special conditions for meals and prayers for its Muslim personnel.

On January 27, 2010, the Intercommunity Center for Coordination against Anti-Semitism and Defamation (CICAD) organized a ceremony honoring Holocaust survivors and opening an exhibit on the Shoah with the participation of representatives of the government of Canton Geneva. An estimated 1,500 students visited the exhibit between January 28, 2010 and February 2, 2010.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were isolated reports of societal abuse and discrimination, but whether these instances were based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, or ethnicity and culture, is difficult to determine. Some observers remained concerned about the social climate for religious minorities, particularly Jews and Muslims.

In its fourth report on Switzerland, dated September 15, 2009, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) expressed concerns about the spread of prejudice and racist stereotypes concerning Muslims within the population, which in some cases lead to discrimination, notably in employment. ECRI also expressed concerns regarding acts of intolerance against the Jewish community and recommended that the government reinforce its efforts to combat anti-Semitism; particularly referring to the initiative to ban the construction of minarets, anonymous anti-Semitic flyers, and letters to newspaper editors.

According to statistics gathered by the Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the number of reported incidents against foreigners or minorities was 66 in 2009, a decrease from 93 in 2008. These figures included instances of spoken and written attacks, which were much more frequent than physical assaults.

During 2009, CICAD recorded 153 anti-Semitic incidents in the western, French-speaking part of the country, ranging from spoken and written attacks to offensive graffiti and acts of vandalism against Jewish property. In 2008, CICAD noted 96 anti-Semitic incidents in the same part of the country. Additionally, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities recorded 28 anti-Semitic incidents in the German-speaking region, compared to 21 incidents in 2008. Approximately one-third of these incidents involved vandalism and graffiti. One-fifth included threats and harassment and almost one-third were verbal attacks. The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities reported in its annual report that serious incidents such as violent attacks against Jews and denials of the Holocaust were very rare in Switzerland compared with other European countries. Throughout the year, several Swiss cities reported graffiti with swastikas, and Jewish organizations and individuals received anti-Semitic leaflets.

On May 27, 2010, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab (headcovering) was verbally and physically attacked in Basel. City authorities expressed their concern about the incident. Police were investigating at the end of the reporting period.

On October 6, 2009 two men on a train said all Jews should be gassed. Witnesses to the statement called the police, and both men were arrested at Zurich's main station.

On July 14, 2009, an unknown person broke the glass of the door of a synagogue in Basel and shouted threats. Police were investigating the incident.

On June 11, 2009, the Basel section of the extreme xenophobic Party of Nationally Oriented Swiss (PNOS) published a text on their Web site claiming the Diary of Anne Frank was based on a "structure of lies." On July 22, 2010, the president of the Basel section of PNOS was sentenced to a fine of $10,375 (10,800 francs) for Holocaust denial based on the text published on the Web site.

On January 11, 2009, unknown persons destroyed the front window of a Jewish study center in Geneva. According to the Secretary General for CICAD, this was clearly an anti-Semitic act. There was no further information on the investigation at the end of the reporting period.

In advance of the referendum on the banning of minarets, and with reference to the law against incitement to racial hatred or discrimination, some cantons prohibited the display of posters supporting the ban that depicted a woman in a burka together with a Swiss flag that had minarets reminiscent of missiles jutting out of it. Other localities permitted them, arguing that they were protected by laws governing freedom of expression. A number of NGOs, politicians, and UN human rights experts raised concerns over the posters.

Proponents of the November 29 initiative to ban minarets contended that the construction of minarets symbolized a religious and political claim to power that called into question the country's secular legal system. Many non-Muslim religious organizations called for the initiative's defeat and expressed regret over its ultimate passage. The Federal Council opposed the ban, issuing public statements describing the initiative as an infringement on "guaranteed international human rights" and contradicting "core values" of the constitution.

On November 1, 2009, two Lugano city council members of the rightwing Lega party wrote in the party's newspaper that the proposed construction of a mosque was meant as a provocation and that they would counter with unspecified provocations of their own if the mosque were built.

On October 31, 2009, Holocaust denier Bernhard Schaub spoke at a meeting of the anticensorship coalition, a sectarian Christian organization. Schaub criticized the country's antiracism law as being contrary to the freedom of expression.

On October 12, 2009, Israeli speaker Avi Lipkin held a lecture in canton Bern calling for a ban of Islam. A group of Muslims filed a criminal complaint against the speaker.

At the end of the reporting period, no additional information was available regarding the police investigation into a 2007 incident in which a 23-year-old Muslim man entered the Islamic center in Crissier near Lausanne and fired several shots, seriously injuring a 43-year-old worshiper. The man was arrested.

Many nongovernmental organizations coordinated interfaith events to promote tolerance throughout the country.

From November 1 to 8, 2009, religious communities in approximately 40 cities across the country joined to celebrate a "Week of Religions" under the motto "Getting to Know Each Other." For a week, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha'is invited each other to attend their religious services and held a series of special events such as music concerts, panel discussions, round table meetings, and open discussion forums.

Jewish leaders reported they organized an annual awareness-raising trip to Auschwitz, Poland, for teachers and students that had a positive multiplier effect in classrooms.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom with the government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

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