GENEVA — Switzerland approved Sunday a ban on new minarets from being built, with the referendum initiated by far-right politicians picking up strong support.
To the dismay of the Muslim minority here, some 57.5 percent of voters who cast ballots and 22 out of 26 cantons voted to ban the towers or turrets attached on mosques from where Muslims are called to prayer.
Far-right politicians across Europe celebrated the results, while the Swiss government sought to assure the Muslim minority that a ban on minarets was "not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture."
The Swiss People's Party (SVP) -- Switzerland's biggest party -- had forced a referendum after collecting a mandatory 100,000 signatures from eligible voters within 18 months.
They said that the minarets -- of which Switzerland has just four -- were not architectural features with religious characteristics, but symbolised a "political-religious claim to power, which challenges fundamental rights."
Having won a double majority on turnout of 53 percent, the initiative will now be inscribed in the country's constitution.
"The Federal Council (government) respects this decision. Consequently the construction of new minarets in Switzerland is no longer permitted," said the government, which had firmly opposed the ban, in a statement.
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the result "reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies."
"These concerns have to be taken seriously... However, the Federal Council takes the view that a ban on the construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies," she stressed.
Switzerland has had an uneasy relationship with its Muslim population, which makes up some five percent of its population of 7.5 million people. Islam is the second largest religion here after Christianity.
A mosque in Geneva was vandalised three times during the anti-minaret campaign, local media reported Saturday.
Widmer-Schlumpf sought to reassure Muslims, saying: "It is not a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture. Of that, the Federal Council gives its assurance."
But for the 400,000-strong Muslim community here, comprised mainly of ex-Yugoslav and Turkish migrants and of whom only 50,000 are estimated to practice their faith, the harm has been done.
"The most painful for us is not the minaret ban, but the symbol sent by this vote. Muslims do not feel accepted as a religious community," said Farhad Afshar, who heads the Coordination of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland.
The Conference of Swiss Bishops also criticised the result, saying that it "heightens the problems of cohabitation between religions and cultures."
Young people carrying candles and cardboard minarets led a mock funerary procession in the federal capital Bern, carrying a banner reading "This is not my Switzerland," the ATS news agency reported.
In Zurich's central Helvetia Platz demonstrators erected around 12 mini-minarets made out of recycled objects, ATS said, with a total of a few hundred people protesting in the two cities.
Amnesty International said the minaret ban is a "violation of religious freedom, incompatible with the conventions signed by Switzerland."
The Swiss Green party said it was contemplating lodging a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for violation of religious freedoms as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
In Morocco, a parliamentarian from the Justice and Development Islamist Party expressed surprise.
"I think that Muslims in Switzerland, and those who live in the European Union, have a lot of work to do in communication to show their real face of tolerance and cohabitation of Islam," said Saad Eddine Othmani.
French far-right politician Marine Le Pen welcomed the outcome, saying that the "elites should stop denying the aspirations and fears of the European people, who, without opposing religious freedom, reject ostentatious signs that political-religious Muslim groups want to impose."
Meanwhile, SVP Vice-President Yvan Perrin cheered the fact that his party had won the vote "without difficulty."
He told Radio Suisse Romande that Swiss companies should not worry about suffering from a possible backlash from Muslim countries.
"If our companies continue to make good quality products, they have nothing to worry about," he said.
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