Religious groups seek common ground

Leaders of Switzerland’s Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities have met in Bern for the first time since the outbreak of war in Iraq.

The heads of the country’s largest religious groups discussed plans to establish a permanent platform for interfaith dialogue.

The meeting was organised by the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches.

In a statement, the Federation described the talks as "cordial". A further meeting is planned for the autumn.

The Federation president, Thomas Wipf, said the idea had originated from an ecumencial prayer meeting held in Bern’s cathedral in March 2003, two weeks before the United States launched military operations in Iraq.

“It struck me at that service that we didn’t have a place where we could meet regularly and have an exchange of views on issues that affect all religious communities,” Wipf told swissinfo.

“It’s also important to have a place where we can get to know and trust each other more.”

The meeting has been billed as the first step towards the establishment of a “Council of Religions”, which could be called on a regular basis to discuss common goals and problems.

Interfaith dialogue

Amédée Grab, president of the Swiss Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and Alfred Donath, head of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, attended the meeting.

They were joined by Bishop Fritz-René Müller of the Old Catholic Church, and Farhad Afshar, president of the umbrella organisation representing Islamic communities in Switzerland.

While the Catholic and Protestant Churches have traditionally dominated Switzerland’s religious landscape, Wipf said the country’s other faiths could not simply be ignored.

“In our country, as in many others, the cultural and religious map has changed… and we have the task of living peacefully with each other,” he said.

Around 330,000 Muslims live in Switzerland, and Afshar hopes this week’s meeting will go some way towards fostering closer ties between the Islamic community and the country’s other religious groups.

“It’s very important to build confidence between different religions through dialogue, and then be in a position to discuss common problems and achieve common goals,” said Afshar.

Religious symbols

One of the topics slated for discussion at the meeting was the controversy surrounding the public display of religious symbols.

The French parliament recently approved legislation banning overt religious symbols, including Islamic headscarves, from schools. Some politicians have called for a similar ban in Switzerland.

“The meeting could be used to discuss debates such as the one we’ve seen recently in France about the wearing of headscarves or the issue of whether it’s acceptable to hang a cross in a school building,” said Wipf.

But Afshar warns that interfaith dialogue on such issues is just one step in the process of building a sense of mutual trust and respect among religions.

“The main reason why Islam is not well established in Switzerland is because it’s not recognised officially as an equal religion in the way that Christianity and Judaism are,” he said.

“And so this meeting may be a step towards the goal of gaining official recognition as a religious community.”