Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April 2014, 10:56 GMT

2007 Report on International Religious Freedom - Switzerland

Publisher United States Department of State
Author Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Publication Date 14 September 2007
Cite as United States Department of State, 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom - Switzerland, 14 September 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46ee6792c.html [accessed 23 April 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.

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

There were isolated reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice, particularly against Islamic and Jewish minorities. Plans by some Islamic associations to build minarets alongside their houses of worship met considerable local opposition and have spurred the public debate on the role of Muslims in society.

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 15,942 square miles and a population of 7,459,100.

Three quarters of the population nominally belong to either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant churches, but actual church attendance rates are much lower.

The arrival of immigrants has contributed to the noticeable growth of religious communities that had little presence in the country in the past. The 2000 census notes membership in religious denominations was as follows: 41.8 percent Roman Catholic; 35.3 percent Protestant; 4.3 percent Muslim; and 11.1 percent professed no formal creed. Groups that constitute less than 4 percent of the population include: Christian Orthodox, Old Catholic, other Christian groups, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish. Authorities had no indication of religious affiliation for 4.3 percent of residents.

The majority of Muslims originate from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania, followed by Turkey as well as Arab and North African countries. Muslim immigrants from the Balkans and Southeastern Europe typically settle in the German-speaking eastern and central regions, whereas those arriving from Arab and North African countries commonly relocate in the French speaking western region. The majority are Sunni Muslims, while other groups include Shi'a, Alawites and others. About 10 to 15 percent of these are estimated to be practicing believers. The country has two large mosques, in Geneva and Zurich, and approximately 120 official prayer rooms. It is believed that another 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 Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The Government at all levels sought to protect this right in full and did not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

Article 15 of the Constitution provides for freedom of creed and conscience, and the Federal Penal Code prohibits any form of debasement or discrimination of any religion or any religious adherents.

There is no official state church; religious matters are handled by the cantons (states) 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 formally leave the church. In some cantons, private companies are unable to avoid payment of the church tax. Some cantons grant "church taxation" status, which the traditional three Christian communities enjoy, to the Jewish community. Islamic and other nonofficial religious groups are excluded from these benefits.

On December 19 to 20, 2006, the Vaud cantonal parliament adopted new legislation on church-state relations that makes the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church the two officially recognized denominations receiving public funding. The legislation granted the Jewish community the status of an institution of public interest and also paved the way to grant the same status to other religious denominations, provided these communities are committed to interconfessional tolerance and respect of the Swiss legal order, namely the equality between the sexes. On September 28, 2006, the federal Parliament approved the Basel cantonal constitution, adopted by voters in 2005. The Basel constitution grants official recognition to the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Old Catholic churches as well as the Jewish community and paves the way for granting "nontraditional" religious communities, including Islam, recognition as official religions under cantonal law.

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

Groups of foreign origin are free to proselytize. 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. The host organization must acknowledge the country's legal order and must not tolerate its abuse by members, either in theory or in practice. Between November 2005 and October 2006 numerous ordained clergymen and unordained religious employees were working on short-term permits in the country.

Education policy is set at the cantonal level, but school authorities at the county level wield some discretionary power in their implementation. Religious education is taught in most public cantonal schools, with the exception of Geneva and Neuchatel. Classes in Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrines are normally offered; some schools also cover other religious groups living in the country. In Lucerne Canton, two municipalities have offered religious classes in Islamic doctrine since 2002. In some cantons, religious classes are entirely voluntary, while in others they form part of the 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 their church, 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 doctrine with nonconfessional teachings about religion and culture. On March 12, 2007, the Zurich cantonal parliament decided to introduce secularized religious instruction in primary schools. The decision prompted the withdrawal of a citizens' ballot initiative launched against a 2004 decision to discontinue traditional classes in biblical history. At the primary school level, pupils will be taught primarily about Christianity, with other religions being covered to the extent they affect the children's realms of experience. In virtually all cantons contemplating or implementing reform, authorities planned to make the nonconfessional teachings about religion and culture a nonelective 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 despite a contrary ruling of the Federal Court Tribunal (Supreme Court) from 1993, holding that such exemptions on religious grounds are constitutional. Education policy is set at the cantonal level, but school authorities at the county level wield some discretionary power in their implementation.

Religious customs, such as genital mutilation of children, forced marriage, or the unilateral repudiation of marriage by the husband, are illegal.

The law prohibits anti-Semitic incitement and historical revisionism, including Holocaust denial.

The Government's Federal Service for the Combating of Racism continued to support anti-racism activities with money from the regular federal budget. For the year 2007, Parliament earmarked $640,000 (800,000 Swiss francs) to fund projects.

On September 24, 2006, voters in a national referendum adopted a new Federal Law on Foreigners, establishing mandatory training for immigrant clerics in order to facilitate their integration into society. Among other provisions, the training program would ensure that immigrants can speak at least one of the three main national languages. The law is slated to enter into force at the beginning of 2008.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

Some cantons refused to grant residency permits to imams considered "fundamentalists." Between November 2004 and October 2006, federal authorities issued a total of 15 working permits for imams from Turkey, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Resident Islamic organizations complained that authorities in many cantons and municipalities discriminated against them by refusing zoning approval to build mosques or Islamic cemeteries. For example, a project involving an Islamic association in the Canton of Bern, in the northwestern city of Langenthal, met with local resistance when the association first unveiled plans to build a minaret on top of its prayer room. On April 16, 2007, the Bern Cantonal Building, Infrastructure and Energy Department cancelled the building permit that the Langenthal city authorities issued on December 20, 2006, after the Islamic association had formally agreed not to issue calls for prayer from the minaret. According to the department, the building request did not include a plan of operations allowing an assessment of conformity with zoning regulations. City authorities sent the dossier back for reconsideration.

The 2005 Law on the Protection of Animals prevents local ritual slaughter for kosher and halal meat; however, importation of such meat remains legal and available for Orthodox Jewish and Muslim communities at comparable prices.

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

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Anti-Semitism

A March 28, 2007, survey found that 10 percent of the population harbor negative opinions about Jews, 78 percent of the population think that a civilized society has to stand up against anti-Semitism, and 90 percent want anti-Semitic action to lead to prosecution.

During 2006 the Geneva-based Intercommunity Center for Coordination against anti-Semitism and Defamation (CICAD) recorded 67 anti-Semitic incidents in the western, French-speaking part of the country, ranging from verbal and written assaults to offensive graffiti and acts of vandalism against Jewish property. For the year 2005 CICAD noted 75 anti-Semitic incidents in the same part of the country.

The campaign Children of the Holocaust, a local association against anti-Semitism, racism, and political extremism, recorded 73 anti-Semitic incidents in the German-speaking part of the country for the period between September 2005 and December 2006.

Authorities believed that a May 24, 2007, fire at the Hekhal Hanes synagogue in Geneva was caused by arson, but have not ascribed political extremism as the motive for the attack (See Societal Abuses and Discrimination section).

During the first week of December 2006, vandals tossed stones at the windows of the synagogue in Bern and painted swastikas on the building.

On September 23, 2006, in Lausanne, a group of youth threw a bottle filled with unidentified liquid at two persons of Jewish faith, one of whom was wearing a kippa, and insulted them with anti-Semitic slurs. On July 8, 2006, an Israeli man was attacked while on a train by a person of Arab origin who shouted "Jihad!" and "Screw the Jews!"

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 prompted demonstrations that included anti-Israeli as well as anti-Semitic sentiments, according to the 2006 Annual Report on Anti-Semitism from the Stephen Roth Institute. On July 21, 2006, people reported at least one Israeli flag festooned with a swastika at a demonstration in Bern protesting Israeli military action in Lebanon against Hezbollah. On July 31, 2006, a similar demonstration took place in Geneva; the Israeli flags with swastikas were again abundant, according to CICAD. On July 4, 2006, unidentified vandals painted swastikas on a synagogue in Zurich. Throughout the summer CICAD tracked an increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric in the letters-to-the-editors pages of some large-circulation Francophone newspapers.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

On May 25, 2007, the Geneva cantonal parliament adopted an amendment of its legislation on cemeteries which provides for the creation of separate sections of burial sites where the deceased of different religious communities can be buried in accord with the rites and requirements of their religion. Previous legislation did not allow the creation of confessional sections in public cemeteries.

On March 27, 2007, Justice Minister Blocher met with some 20 representatives of various Muslim organizations for an exchange of views on integration and security. Although the justice ministry regularly convenes communities and organizations to discuss matters under its purview, it was the first such meeting with Muslim organizations.

On March 19, 2007, the National Council (lower house of Parliament) rejected a motion to abolish the Federal Commission against Racism (EKR). The motion had been tabled by the Swiss People's Party (SVP) in December 2004.

On January 27, 2007, following the precedent of previous years, schools across the country held a day of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust. In her official address on the occasion President Micheline Calmy-Rey welcomed these educational efforts as particularly important and thanked all those combating racism and persecution.

On September 1, 2006, the EKR released a set of recommendations to counter the observed societal discrimination against the Muslim minority. The Commission noted that Muslims at times face discrimination in various forms in their day-to-day lives, when requesting permits for community buildings or Muslim sections in public cemeteries, applying for citizenship, or in the labor market. In its recommendations, the EKR asked for a more active stance of the authorities against discrimination, a more flexible approach to Muslim community building projects, and religious education in public schools that reflects the religious diversity of today's classes.

The federal Government joined with national youth associations to support the Council of Europe's youth campaign "All Different-All Equal" to promote diversity, human rights, and political participation. The campaign, which is scheduled to run from June 2006 to September 2007, aims to involve as many youths as possible in local and regional projects.

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were isolated reports of societal abuse and discrimination, but whether these instances were based on religious belief and practice or ethnicity and culture is difficult to determine. Some observers remained concerned about the climate for members of religious, particularly Muslim and Jewish, minorities. There were at least two violent anti-Semitic physical assaults and a few serious acts of vandalism against Jewish religious property. (See the Anti-Semitism section above.) However, prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom.

According to statistics gathered by the Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the total number of reported incidents against foreigners or minorities was 93 in 2006, slightly lower than the 103 incidents recorded in 2005. These figures included instances of verbal and written attacks, which were much more frequent than physical assaults.

In the early morning hours of May 24, 2007, a fire broke out at the Hekhal Hanes synagogue in Geneva's Malagnou neighborhood and quickly engulfed most of the building. The entrance hall was charred, and other rooms sustained heavy damage from smoke and water when fire crews extinguished the blaze. No one was hurt in the incident. President Calmy-Rey expressed grave concern at the prospect of an arson attack and pledged her solidarity with the Jewish community of Geneva and the country.

On February 22, 2007, a loose coalition of center-left parties in the Canton of Zurich and the Association of Muslim Organizations in Zurich (VIOZ) issued a joint statement denouncing an advertisement of the right-wing SVP in the run up to the cantonal elections. The Zurich chapter of the SVP in mid-February ran newspaper advertisements that carried the slogan "Islamic population +1560%" and praised the SVP as the only party consistently opposing "the spreading of Islam." The center-left parties and VIOZ said the ad abused vague fears of Islam for political ends and affected the religious freedom of Muslims.

On February 20, 2007, a criminal court found the perpetrator of a 2004 attack on the imam of Lausanne not responsible for his actions by reason of insanity and ordered his confinement in a psychiatric institution. The man had entered the local Islamic Center during Friday prayers and stabbed the cleric and a nearby worshiper with a knife. The two victims were each granted $12,000 (15,000 Swiss francs) indemnity.

A row continued over the plans of a local Turkish cultural association to add a minaret to its house of worship in the northwestern village of Wangen in the Canton of Solothurn. On January 8, 2007, a group of neighbors opposing the minaret filed a complaint with the Federal Court Tribunal (Supreme Court), which remained pending at the end of the reporting period. They went to the high court after a November 23, 2006, ruling by a cantonal administrative court, which threw out their complaint and ruled that the minaret did not violate zoning restrictions. The court also affirmed that no calls for prayer could be made from the minaret. The neighbors filed the original court appeal after the Solothurn Building and Justice Department gave the go ahead on July 13, 2006, for the planned 18-foot high minaret, overturning a contrary decision of the local building commission.

The minaret building projects in Wangen, (in the Solothurn canton) Langenthal, (in the Bern canton) and Wil, (in the Sankt Gallen canton), provoked fierce political debates beyond the communities concerned. On June 21, 2007, Ambassador Omur Orhun, Personal Representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims, expressed deep concern about a petition that aims to ban the construction of minarets across the country. On April 10, 2007, a committee comprising members of the federal Parliament from the SVP and the Federal Democratic Union (EDU) launched a popular initiative to ban the construction of minarets across the country. The period in which supporters can gather the 100,000 signatures necessary to bring the popular initiative to a ballot vote lasts until November 2008. Three cabinet ministers were quick to condemn the initiative; President and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said it jeopardized the country's interests and the security of its people. Islamic umbrella organizations, in a joint statement deplored the popular initiative as the latest form of anti-Islamic agitation by the political right which threatens peaceful co-existence and hampers the integration of Muslims. On September 4, 2006, the Zurich parliament narrowly decided to hold a debate on a ban of the construction of minarets across the canton. In Solothurn, the cantonal parliament on June 27, 2006, rejected a proposal for an outright ban of the construction of religious buildings that implicitly targeted minarets. (At the end of the reporting period, there were only two minarets in the country, at the Geneva and Zurich mosques.)

On December 2, 2006, the Catholic bishop from Basle-Lugano (Ticino canton) joined the Jewish community for prayers in the local synagogue. It was the first time one of the country's bishops participated in the Sabbath-celebrations of a Jewish community.

On May 14, 2007, the Swiss Council of Religions (SCR) announced that Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin received a SCR delegation for the first of what were billed as biannual meetings to discuss current issues of religious policy. (The SCR is comprised of senior representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, Old Catholics, the Swiss Protestant Church, and the Muslim and Jewish communities.) Earlier, following its second meeting on November 24, 2006, the SCR expressed great concern about the observed use of religion for political ends and condemned efforts categorically to discredit the Anti-Racism Clause of the Penal Code. The SCR held that popular fears were being exploited for partisan gain and that it was out of the question to deny religious communities their constitutional rights, for example with a popular initiative prohibiting minarets.

On August 24, 2006, the SCR convened for its first meeting in Bern. They issued a statement reaffirming the right to wear religious symbols in public.

Some employers prohibited the wearing of headscarves in the workplace. For example, the second largest retailer announced that its dress code did not provide for any headgear, and that it would not allow the wearing of the Islamic headscarf or hijab.

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government and religious leaders as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Released on September 14, 2007

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