Swiss official hints at reversal of minaret ban

A top Swiss official said yesterday that voter approval of a ban on minarets next to mosques could be struck down in court, as critics at home and abroad condemned the vote, saying it undermined the country's secular image.

Legal experts have questioned whether the ban on the Islamic minarets, used for the call to prayer, is compatible with Switzerland's constitution and with international human rights law.

Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the ban would come into force immediately, but indicated that it could subsequently be overturned. "The ban contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights," Zurich daily Blick cited Ms Widmer-Schlumpf as saying.

Switzerland currently presides over the European Court of Human Rights, which rules on breaches of the convention.

The vote brings an on-going Europe-wide debate over Islam and immigration to focus on Switzerland, and is a serious slap in the face for the government. It campaigned against the ban and was largely taken by surprise by the outcome of Sunday's referendum. The proposal, backed by nationalist parties, was approved by 57.5 per cent of the population, forcing the government to declare illegal the building of any new minarets in Switzerland. It doesn't affect the country's four existing minarets.

The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, said he was "a bit scandalised" by the vote, which amounts to "oppressing a religion".

"I hope that the Swiss will go back on this decision rather quickly," Kouchner said on France's RTL radio. "It is an expression of intolerance."

The UN's special investigator on religious freedom, Asma Jahangir, said the ban constitutes "a clear discrimination against members of the Muslim community in Switzerland".

The ban's supporters said Muslims in Switzerland, many of whom don't practice, have grown sharply in number from 50,000 in 1980 but are still only 4 per cent of the country's 7.5 million population. Voting figures showed a rural-urban split in the vote. Only 38.6 percent of people in major cities backed the ban, compared with about two-thirds of the population in smaller towns and villages, officials said.

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