U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2004 - Switzerland

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on September 15, 2004, covers the period from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004.

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

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

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. However, negative reaction to immigration, the conflict in the Middle East, and terrorist acts by Muslim extremists in foreign countries, have increased intolerance in radical and populist publications and occasionally in mainstream daily newspapers.

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 a total area of 15,942 square miles, and its population is an estimated 7.21 million. Three-quarters of the population nominally adhere to either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant Church, the two predominant denominations, but actual church attendance rates are much lower. The Muslim population is the largest religious minority, making up approximately 4 percent of the resident population. Over 11 percent of citizens claim no formal allegiance to any church or religious community.

The breakdown between the different religious denominations has shifted noticeably over the past several years. Traditionally, over 95 percent of the population had been split evenly between the Protestant and the Roman Catholic Church, but since the 1970s, there has been a steady increase of persons formally renouncing their church membership. In the Roman Catholic Church, immigration from southern Europe has countered this trend. The arrival of immigrants from other areashas contributed to the noticeable growth of religious communities that had little presence in the country in the past. According to the Government's Statistics Office, membership in religious denominations is as follows: 41.8 percent Roman Catholic; 33.0 percent Protestant; 1.8 percent Orthodox; 0.2 percent Old Catholic; 0.2 percent other Christian groups; 4.3 percent Muslim; 0.2 percent Jewish; 0.8 percent other religions (Buddhist, Hindi, and other); 11.1 percent no formal creed.

According to official statistics, the Muslim population has doubled to more than 310,000 over the past several years, but independent sources believe an additional 150,000 Muslims may be residing illegally in the country. Muslim immigrants from North African countries typically settled in the French-speaking western part of the country, whereas those arriving from Turkey, Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia commonly relocated in the German-speaking eastern and central parts. There are only two major mosques, one in Zurich (built in 1963 and belonging to the Ahmadayyia movement) and one in Geneva (built in 1978 and financed by Saudi Arabia). There are approximately 120 Muslim centers located throughout the country in private homes or office complexes.

Approximately three-quarters of the Jewish households are located in the urban areas of four major cities: Zurich, Geneva, Basel, and Bern. There are four distinguishable Jewish subgroups: Orthodox; conservative; liberal; and reformists. About 15 percent of Jews belong to the Orthodox branch.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full and does 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, according to Article 72 of the Constitution. Most of the 26 cantons (with the exception of Geneva and Neuchatel, where church and religion are separated) financially support at least one of the three traditional denominations – Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, or Protestant – with funds collected through taxation. Each canton has 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 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, which the traditional three Christian denominations enjoy, to the Jewish community. Islamic and other nonofficial religious groups are excluded from these benefits.

In November 2003, voters in Zurich rejected an amendment to the cantonal constitution that would have provided for the recognition of nontraditional religious communities and allowed them to levy a tax on their members and to receive public funds. According to a local polling institute, the main reason for the amendment's defeat at the polls was its provisions for granting Islam recognition as an official religion under cantonal law. The debates on a reform of the relations between Church and State, as well as the official recognition of the Jewish community, continue in the context of the ongoing complete revision of the Zurich cantonal constitution.

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

In May the Federal Council (cabinet) decided to appoint an ambassador to the Vatican in order to establish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Although a Papal Nuncio has resided in Bern since 1920, the country only appointed an ambassador-at-large "in special mission" to the Holy See in 1991. The Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches expressed unease over the Government's action because the latter did not consult them on the issue.

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, that he or she would be supported financially by the host organization, and that the country of origin of religious workers also grants visas to Swiss religious workers. The number of working visas awarded to foreign imams increased from 7 to 10 between 2002 and 2003.

Religious education is taught in most public cantonal schools, with the exception of Geneva and Neuchatel. The doctrine generally depends on which religion predominates in the particular canton, but some schools cover other religious groups living in the country. A new religious tutorial printed in Lausanne in the fall of 2003 and distributed to French-speaking primary schools in Fribourg, Bern, Wallis, and Jura created controversy among Roman Catholic parliamentarians in the canton of Wallis because it presented Christianity and Islam on an equal footing. The local section of the Swiss People's Party (SVP) criticized the book's version of Islambecause it did not mention radical Muslim practices such as Shari'a and stoning. Arguing that 95 percent of the Wallis population was Roman Catholic, the SVP submitted a petition with 2,000 signatures to the cantonal chancellery asking that the book be withdrawn, and they also threatened to launch a popular initiative as an alternative solution. Other cantons using the book have not made similar complaints.

Those of different faiths are free to attend classes for their own creeds during the class period. Atheists are not required to attend the classes. Parents also may send their children to private religious schools and to classes offered by their church, or they may teach their children at home.

The debate over the country's World War II record contributed to the problem of anti-Semitism. To counter anti-Semitism and racism, the Federal Department of the Interior set up, in 2002, a Federal Service for the Combating of Racism to coordinate antiracism activities of the Federal Administration with cantonal and communal authorities. This Federal Service has a budget of $11.1 million (15 million Swiss francs) to use over a 5-year period. Of this money, $370,000 (500,000 Swiss francs) per year was reserved for the establishment of new local consultation centers where victims of racial or religious discrimination may seek assistance. Approximately 130 of these consultation centers or contact points already exist in the country. In addition the Federal Service for the Combating of Racism sponsors and manages a variety of projects to combat racism, including some projects specifically addressing the problem of anti-Semitism.

On May 3, the Cabinet decided to retain the national anthem, although it acknowledged that the anthem's text is outdated and overtly religious and sexist. The Cabinet also rejected a parliamentary request to drop the "Swiss Psalm," which was written in 1841 and has in recent years been the target of considerable criticism. Among the controversial aspects of the anthem are its explicitly religious lyrics, such as "the pious soul recognizes God in the noble fatherland," and its exclusion of female citizens.

Of the country's 16 largest political parties, only 4 (the Evangelical People's Party, the Christian Democratic Party, the Federal Democratic Union, and the Christian Social Party) subscribe to a religious philosophy. There have been no reports of individuals being excluded from a political party because of their religious beliefs. Some religious or spiritualgroups have organized their own parties, such as the Transcendental Meditation Maharishi's Party of Nature and the Argentinean Guru's Humanistic Party. However, none of these groups have a large enough following to win political representation.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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

In several cases between 1995 and 2000, the Federal Tribunal (the country's Supreme Court) consistently ruled that the Church of Scientology is a primarily commercial, rather than religious, entity.

In April 2003, the Federal Tribunal ruled that it was constitutional to refuse a license to run a private school to a body affiliated with the Church of Scientology because of the latter's controversial nature, a stance the court had already taken in 1993 and 1996. The Federal Tribunal thus upheld a decision of the Lucerne cantonal government to close a private primary school run by a woman formally associated with the Church of Scientology.

On April 7, the Geneva Cantonal Government confirmed its decision to fire public school teacher Hani Ramadan, a Muslim cleric, despite a contradictory court ruling. Ramadan had been suspended from teaching since October 2002 following the publication of an article in the French newspaper"Le Monde" in which he favored the stoning of adulterers as set out in Islamic law (Shari'a). Nevertheless, Ramadan will be entitled to financial damages, which have yet to be set.

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld the Canton of Geneva's decision to prohibit a Muslim primary school teacher from wearing a headscarf in the classroom; the Court found that the legal provisions did not discriminate against the religious convictions of the complainant, but were meant to protect the rights of other subjects as well as the public order.

Ritual slaughter (the bleeding to death of animals that have not been stunned first) has been banned in the country since 1893, but the 1978 Law on the Protection of Animals explicitly allows for the importation of kosher and halal meat. Imported kosher and halal meat from France and Germany is available in the country at comparable prices. A popular initiative to protect animal rights was filed in July 2003 with the Swiss chancellery collecting 117,113 signatures, well above the required 100,000-signature threshold. If passed, the proposed bill would prohibit the importation of meat from animals bled without stunning. It is not yet clear whether such regulation would in effect prohibit local religious minorities from practicing their religion. The popular initiative has yet to be reviewed by Parliament.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

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.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

The country participated in the April conference sponsored by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on anti-Semitism in Berlin. Franz von Däniken, the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, highlighted the various ways the country was confronting anti-Semitism. He condemned all forms of racism and anti-Semitism and fully endorsed the OSCE measures to promote tolerance and nondiscrimination.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Thegenerally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The Swiss Observatory of Religions based in Lausanne believes that anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic feelings have increased over the last decade. Although physical violence was rare, most anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim remarks have largely been fueled by extensive media reports over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Holocaust Assets issue, and terrorist acts by Muslim extremists in foreign countries. The few journalists that engaged in anti-Zionist rhetoric later apologized. Nevertheless, other xenophobic and revisionist publications exist, sometimes using Internet web sites based in the United States to avoid prosecution.

According to statistics gathered by the Foundation Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the total of reported incidents against foreigners or minorities was 107 in 2003, down from 121 incidents recorded in 2002. These figures include instances of verbal and written attacks, which were much more frequent than physical assaults. According to the Federal Statistics Office, 24 persons were convicted in 2002 under the 1995 anti-racism law (down from 38 convictions in 2001), whereas 3 persons were sentenced for interfering with religious freedom or freedom to worship (down from 4 convictions in 2001).

A study released by the Zurich University on March 26 found no evidence of anti-Semitism in the country's German language media, but noted that newspapers and electronic media often resorted to questionable stereotypes. The study also said that Muslims were more likely to be portrayed as aggressors and as uneducated people who are opposed to democracy. The report was based on a survey of the media in the German-speaking part of the country.

On April 26, the Zurich lawyer and honorary chairman of the Jewish religious community, Sigi Feigel, sued the political party Europa Partei Schweiz by claiming that it sponsored newspaper advertisements comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. The party, which is not represented in Parliament, ran advertisements in the daily "Tages-Anzeiger" the day after the killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi calling on the country to cut off diplomatic relations and end military cooperation with Israel. The advertisements referred to "Israel, nation of the Jews" and stated, "with the exception of the gas chambers, all the Nazi instruments are being used against (Israel's) resident population." The party is being charged under antiracism laws.

On January 27, schools across the country held a day of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust. Education authorities said the aim was to remember the Holocaust and other forms of genocide committed in the past century and raise awareness of inhumane ideologies.

Fear of radical Islam in the country is reflected in various media reports on supposed radical Islamic rhetoric in mosques. Many imams in the country come from Kosovo, Bosnia, the Middle East, or Maghreb countries. They are often self-taught persons or trained in Muslim countries, mainly Saudi Arabia. Officially, the country has two large mosques, in Geneva and Zurich, and approximately 120 prayer rooms. It is believed that another 100 rooms exist, many of which belong to the Albanian, Turkish, or Arab communities and are controlled by imams under Salafist influence, which escape tight federal and cantonal control. Prayer rooms are legal as long as they do not provide personnel or financing to terrorist networks. Religious associations are only required to register if their earnings reach approximately $74,000 (100,000 Swiss francs). Swiss Muslims in Geneva complained in April that foreign imams invited to the Great Mosque of Geneva for a prayer were giving radical speeches, sometimes filled withinvectiveagainst the Jewish population and western countries.

The Federal Office of Immigration, Integration, and Emigration acknowledged that the training of imams poses a problem. Some cantons refused to grant a residency permit to imams considered fundamentalists. An updated version of the Law on Foreigners, being debated in Parliament at the end of the period covered by this report, will include mandatory training for all immigrants in order to facilitate their integration in society. Among other provisions, the training program will ensure that immigrants can speak at least one of the three national languages (French, German, or Italian).

While Muslim and Jewish cemeteries already exist in the country, two laic cantons (Geneva and Neuchatel) require that all religious communities be buried in state-owned cemeteries only. Both Jewish and Muslim communities have protested that this restriction breaches their freedom of religion and incurs higher costs. Islam prohibits Muslims from being buried in cemeteries with those of other religions, and Geneva Muslims protest that they are forced to pay expensive repatriation costs to send their deceased by plane to a Muslim country. It is estimated that between 90 and 95 percent of deceased Muslims in Geneva are sent to their countries of origin for burial.

During the period covered by this report, the canton of Geneva started a series of consultations to change its religious cantonal law, but the political climate surrounding the issue was not appropriate for a vote.

Other religious customs such as sexual mutilation of children, forced marriage, or "repudiation" of a marriage are illegal. In July 2000, the Federal Tribunal ruled that a unilateral repudiation by a Muslim man against his wife could not be recognized because it contravened the country's values of justice and the basic rights of a defendant to appeal.

In April Muslim leaders expressed fears of a "witch-hunt" against the community, following government revelations that members of half a dozen militant Muslim groups are operating secretly in the country. These fears were increased in January when police arrested eight foreign nationals suspected of links to the May 2003 terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia. Hafid Ouardiri, spokesman for Geneva's Islamic Cultural Foundation, said he was "terrified" that people would mistakenly link Islam with extremism. The Federal Refugee Office later confirmed press allegations that these radical Islamic groups included the Tunisian Islamic Front, the Palestinian militant Islamic group Hamas, and Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front. It admitted that the Government had become more sensitive to potential threats in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, but denied that the authorities were involved in any systematic targeting of the country's Muslims.

On April 10, a Muslim shop selling religious Islamic objects in Basle was destroyed by arson. Police officials could find no reason for the crime. The investigation continued at the end of the period covered by this report.

There have been no reports of difficulties for Muslims buying or renting space to worship. Although occasional complaints arise, such as a Muslim employee not being given time to pray during the workday, attitudes generally are tolerant toward Muslims.

The debate over a new French law adopted in March that banned all ostentatious religious signs from public school did not affect the country, largely because religious matters are managed at the local level by the cantons. Nevertheless, the debate received extensive coverage in the media, and many cantonal officials expressed concerns over the need to avoid tensions in public schools.

Many nongovernmental organizations coordinate interfaith events throughout the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with government officials and representatives of the various faiths.


This 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.