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Religious groups seek common ground

Swissinfo, Switzerland
July 6, 2004
Ramsey Zarifeh • Tuesday July 6, 2004

Leaders of Switzerlands Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities are meeting in Bern for the first time since the outbreak of war in Iraq.

The heads of the countrys largest religious groups are expected to discuss plans to establish a permanent platform for interfaith dialogue.

This weeks meeting is being organised by the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches.

Its president, Thomas Wipf, said the idea originated from a prayer meeting open to all religions held in Berns cathedral in March 2003, two weeks before the United States launched military operations in Iraq.

It struck me at that service that we didnt have a place where we could meet regularly and have an exchange of views on issues that affect all religious communities, Wipf told swissinfo.

Its 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

Amde Grab, president of the Swiss Catholic Bishops Conference, and Alfred Donath, head of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, are both expected to attend the meeting.

They will be joined by a bishop of the Old Catholic Church, Fritz-Ren Mller, and Farhad Afshar, president of the umbrella organisation representing Islamic communities in Switzerland.

While the Catholic and Protestant Churches have traditionally dominated Switzerlands religious landscape, Wipf said the countrys 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 weeks meeting will go some way towards fostering closer ties between the Islamic community and the countrys other religious groups.

Its 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 is 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 weve seen recently in France about the wearing of headscarves or the issue of whether its 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 its 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.

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