FaithWorld

Swiss vote to ban new minarets too close for comfort

minarets-cow (Photo: Poster to vote ”yes” to minaret ban in a Swiss meadow, 13 Nov 2009/Dario Bianchi)

A threatening image dominates Switzerland’s streets in the form of a dark woman dressed in a Muslim niqab veil, looming over a Swiss flag covered with missile-like minarets with a call to vote “yes” in a referendum on Sunday to ban minarets on mosques here. The posters clearly seek to tap into the concerns of the country’s traditionally Christian majority about increased immigration from Muslim countries.

“I find the nature of these posters very provocative against the Islamic world. The presentation and the way the minarets are presented like rockets is unbelievable. Also the colours — with all the black — look very threatening,” says 34-year-old air traffic controller Judith Baumer.  “I assume that it’s supposed to trigger strong emotions or fear in the population.”

minarets-trainThe poster, described by the Swiss race commission as demonising Muslims and provoking religious tensions, has been banned in some cities but seems omnipresent in others. (Photo: Vote “yes” posters in Zurich’s main train station, 26 Oct 2009/Arnd Wiegmann)

Polls suggest the referendum could be close-run. With only a slim majority of Swiss questioned expressing opposition or a tendency to oppose a ban, turnout and currently undecided voters could yet sway the vote towards behind the “‘yes” campaign.

“It’s fine to build minarets in a Muslim country, not in Switzerland. I’m strictly against that,” says unemployed electrical fitter Rolf Waechtler.  “People from abroad are ok with me, but I’m in favour of them putting minarets directly there: abroad.”

Bishops see more selfish Europe 20 years after Berlin Wall fell

referendum Photo; Irish “Yes” campaigners celebrate in Dublin, 3 Oct 2009/Cathal McNaughton)

Europe has become increasingly selfish and materialistic in the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the heads of the Roman Catholic bishops’ conferences across Europe said at the end of their three-day annual meeting at the weekend.  “The crisis sweeping Europe today is serious,” they said in a statement after the session in Paris. They cited materialism, individualism and relativism as major challenges facing European society.

The bishops’ sober assessment contrasted with the upbeat mood that the overwhelming “Yes” vote in Ireland’s Lisbon Treaty referendum created.  It must be noted they drew up their statement before they’d heard the news from Dublin on Saturday. And their statement ended with a note of Christian hopefulness. Still, their diagnosis is so fundamental it’s hard to imagine they would have changed much in the text.

Here’s the way they put it:

“All that has happened since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been a great stepping stone in the European adventure… (but) twenty years later, we now see that the incredible European project, with a strong ethical basis, has greatly weakened… The hopes placed on building Europe have not so far been fulfilled. Here we take note of the influence of several factors:

Trees, worshippers and Ireland’s new blasphemy law

irish-crossWhat do Monty Python, the Virgin Mary and environmentalists have in common? They have all been at the centre of a debate in Ireland’s parliament this week before the upper house passed a bill imposing a fine of up to 25,000 euros for the crime of blasphemy. For days, Irish media has been excited about a tree stump in the western county of Limerick which has attracted a flow of pilgrims who believe it is an image of the Virgin Mary. As one senator recalled in the debate however, a local Catholic priest has warned his flock not to worship what he said is, after all, “just a tree.”
(Photo: Crucifixes with Irish flags in a shop in the pilgrimage town of Knock, 10 June 2009/Cathal McNaughton)

“Fr. Russell might be at risk of being found guilty of blasphemy since he is being critical, grossly abusive or insulting to people of a religion who seem to want to worship a tree,” Senator Ivana Bacik said. “We should be mindful of the danger of introducing an offence like blasphemy in light of the sort of events that we are seeing in Rathkeale in Limerick.”Senator Dan Boyle, the chairman of the Green Party, the junior member in Ireland’s governing coalition, quipped that he apparently led a party of “tree worshippers” and argued that the offence of blasphemy was archaic and should be made obsolete. “The concept of blasphemy was brilliantly satirised by Monty Python in the film ‘Life of Brian’ where a Pharisee was unintentionally stoned to death for repeatedly, although unwittingly, saying the word ‘Jehovah’,” Boyle said. “Much of the debate on this issue is a political equivalent of repeatedly saying the word ‘Jehovah’. It is something we need to get out of our political system as soon possible.”The house passed the bill, but only after an initial hiccup when two senators’ absence — one reportedly away at the dentist — all but caused the bill to be defeated by a small margin or at least its main provisions weakened to meaninglessness by an opposition amendment. The government of the traditionally Catholic country has defended the law by pointing out that there was already an existing piece of legislation dating back to 1961 that called for much stricter punishments. Ireland’s constitution requires some form of punishment of blasphemy and the new law would decrease the penalty involved.ahernAbolishing the crime of blasphemy altogether would require a constitutional amendment and a referendum. A referendum would not be impossible to organise — for example, Oct. 2 will see the second vote in less than two years on just one issue, the European Union’s Lisbon reform treaty, which was rejected by the Irish electorate last year. Some have suggested a referendum on defamation could be held on the same day. But the government has argued a referendum on blasphemy would be too costly and “distracting” for a country busy fixing one of Europe’s worst public finances and the worst recession in the industrialised world.
(Photo: Dermot Ahern, 9 March 2007/Thierry Roge)

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern also defends his bill by pointing to clauses which stipulate that blasphemous matter will only be prosecutable if it causes actual outrage among a substantial number of adherents of a religion. It also exempts works in which a “reasonable person” would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value.Which works qualify for that seems to open up a whole new debate. Atheists, who have separate campaigns running against the requirement for religious oaths before taking the office of judge or president of Ireland, say they will test the new law by quickly publishing a deliberately blasphemous statement. “The law also discriminates against atheist citizens by protecting the fundamental beliefs of religious people only,” said Michael Nugent, one of the founders of Atheist Ireland. “Why should religious beliefs be protected by law in ways that scientific or political or other secular beliefs are not?,” Nugent asked in an op-ed piece in Friday’s Irish Times.(Additional reporting by Ashley Beston)

Follow FaithWorld on Twitter at RTRFaithWorld

Religion versus ethics in Berlin

Koran studiesBerlin’s referendum on religion lessons in schools poses fundamental questions about how to foster inter-faith tolerance and the relationship between church and state in Germany, as Reuters reported.

The Pro Reli campaign wants to change the capital’s law to allow pupils to choose between faith-based religion lessons and an ethics course. Berlin, with its long secular tradition, is one of the only German states not to have compulsory religion lessons but a wider ethics course instead.

The main argument is whether children who spend hours at school learning about their own faith have a stronger moral foundation and end up being more tolerant of other religions than children who have a broader education in ethics.