Faith factors at play in two European elections at the weekend

October 22, 2007

Two general elections on Sunday made it an interesting weekend on the religion&politics beat in Europe. Put simply, a pro-Catholic party lost in Poland and an anti-minaret party won in Switzerland. There was no link between the two votes and religion was not the main issue in either. But the faith factor was in the air and it highlighted two trends at the crossroads of church and state in Europe.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski (L) in church with brother Lech (R) and Lech’s wifePoland’s Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski lost his election despite strong support from the powerful media empire of right-wing Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, whose outlets include the controversial Radio Maryja that critics call xenophobic and anti-Semitic. Kaczynski and his twin brother Lech , Poland’s president, have enjoyed support from older Poles and many clerics because of their fervent Catholicism. But Jaroslaw’s government got mired down in infighting and picked fights with the European Union, Germany and Russia. The Polish bishops, sensing the Church was being used for political purposes, told priests not to use the pulpit to endorse any candidates.

The Polish Catholic Church played a major political role before 1989, standing as an alternative to the Soviet-backed communist government in Warsaw. Since then, however, democracy, economic growth and European Union membership have changed the country profoundly. The close ties between some conservative political parties and the Catholic Church faded in most of Europe years ago and are fading now in Poland, even while a majority of Poles still attends church regularly.

SVP poster says “create security” — graffito says “racism”A different trend was at play in Switzerland, where a party that campaigned against minarets on mosques and pledged to kick out “black sheep” (immigrants who commit serious crimes) became the biggest group in the Swiss parliament. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) will not take over the government because the Alpine republic has a consensus- based system that ensures no one party exerts too much influence. But its populist leader Christoph Blocher can be expected to continue the campaigns against minarets (and mosque building in general) and against immigrants. This time, the religion concerned — Islam — is perceived to be on the rise.

The tougher line on building mosques has emerged recently in several countries, especially — but by no means exclusively — in the German-speaking ones. A dispute over a planned mosque in Cologne goes on (here local media reports in German) and the head of the Evangelical Church in Germany, the main Protestant body there, recently asked whether a series of mosques planned around Germany amounted to a concealed “claim to power” (Machtanspruch) by Muslim communities.

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