Paris, France - Voters in Switzerland decided Sunday to ban the building of minarets, in a referendum that showed an unexpected level of resentment against Muslim immigrants in a country long known for discretion and tolerance.
Opinion polls in recent months had indicated that a majority of voters would reject the measure, fearful of an impact on the country's reputation and ability to do business in the Muslim world. But official results on Sunday showed a surprisingly strong 57.5 percent of those voting endorsed it, against 42.5 percent who opposed.
The ballot was the latest sign of a backlash against Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, where Christian voters appear increasingly eager to preserve their traditional ways in the face of expanded Muslim populations.
The Swiss federal council said four existing minarets would not be affected by the vote, and it specified that Muslim residents of the tiny Alpine country would still be allowed to build mosques and practice their religion. But construction of new minarets, the towers alongside mosques from which Muslims are called to prayer by Koranic chants, "is forbidden in Switzerland from now on," it said in a communique.
"This does not mean rejection of the Muslim community, its religion or its culture," the council added. "The federal council will make sure of that. Religious peace is an essential element that has made the success of Switzerland."
The Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland estimated recently that the country has as many as 400,000 Muslims among its population of 7.6 million. An official census in 2000 put the number at 311,000.
The federal government and a majority in parliament had campaigned strongly against the measure, which was sponsored by the Swiss People's Party, a large populist party, and the Federal Democratic Union, a right-wing Christian party. In addition, major religious groups -- some Christian, as well as Muslim ones -- had urged their faithful to vote no.
"Resentment came out ahead," Saida Keller-Messahli, president of the Forum for Progressive Islam, told reporters in Switzerland on Sunday.
Keller-Messahli predicted that the vote would lead to a long struggle in the courts, despite the cherished Swiss tradition of settling political questions through referendums. Banning minarets, she added, seemed to violate the Swiss constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion.
The Swiss Bishops' Conference warned that the vote would make it more difficult to foster good relations between Muslims and Christians in Switzerland, whatever the legal situation. "The decision of the people represents an obstacle and a big challenge on the path to integration through dialogue and mutual respect," the bishops said in a statement.
But backers of the measure said from the outset they were not seeking to prevent Muslims from practicing their religion. The goal, they explained, was to prevent what they described as the growing political impact of Switzerland's Muslim minority, which they said is symbolized by minarets pointing into the sky; women wearing full veils; and observance of sharia, a Koran-based legal system.
"The minaret is the power symbol of political Islam and sharia law," Walter Wobman, a People's Party member of parliament, told the Reuters news agency at a rally near Bern, the federal capital.
The symbolic power of minarets -- particularly jarring in a country used to church steeples and quiet conformity -- seemed to be a driving force behind the yes vote, rather than any specific nuisance. To avoid the risk of annoying townspeople, the existing minarets in Geneva, Zurich, Wangen bei Olten and Winterthur do not broadcast calls to prayer as is the custom in Muslim countries.